The Big Dig of Life

Featured Image: “Big_Dig_1999_1016_16,” © Martin & Jessica O’Brien (own work), October 1999. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

Anyone from the New England area is familiar with The Big Dig. You don’t grow up in New England without at some point in life, driving in it, through it, around it, or sitting in traffic because of it. With a loan repayment plan that stretches into 2038, as far as I know, it remains the most expensive highway construction project ever in the history of the United States.

Work on The Big Dig spanned three decades, and the costs before interest totaled $15 billion. When all the debt was tallied, the final bill came in at $24.3 billion, which far surpassed the originally projected $2.4 billion. In the end, it took more money to finance The Big Dig than went into building the Chunnel. That same investment would buy NASA four Hubble telescopes! The Big Dig was an ambitious undertaking. Ground broke in 1991 with dredging for the Ted Williams Tunnel, and the project was plagued with all sorts of setbacks and controversies. Some of the problems encountered along the way were devastating. The failure of the anchors affixing the concrete slabs to the roof of one of the tunnels resulted in the tragic death of a woman when the ceiling collapsed on her car. There were also countless leaks. Dangerous guardrails were eventually replaced. However, the last touches were completed in 2006, and the Big Dig was declared dug.

Except, the work was never finished. Not really. On a recent visit home, all the lights in the entire length of tunnel that I traversed were turned off for inspection and maintenance, and one lane was closed while road crews in bright orange vests and hard hats poured over blueprints, shined flashlights into crevices, and wielded heavy equipment. Ten years after the project’s official conclusion, the work continued.

Messy, complicated, costly, and time-consuming, with traffic patterns becoming more snarled and congested before any hint of improvement… working with a goal in mind and a grand, aspiring plan, hoping for success while muddling through first once complication and then another, some with disastrous consequences, without any real guarantee of the desired outcome… all the while facing criticism and wrestling with doubt…

Big Dig Signs
Big Dig Signs,” © Stephen Gore (own work), March 2004. CC BY 2.0. (license)

When I think about The Big Dig project, it seems an apt metaphor for my life. Thanks to the second law of thermodynamics, even in its current state of “completion,” the tunnel requires continual care and upkeep. In the same way, I am always struggling to adjust under the ever-shifting imbalances of my life. I am always digging deeper, exploring the dark, hidden parts of my mind and my heart, trying to bring the life I live into some sort of closer alignment with the values that I hold so precious. Never, ever will the work of my life’s project be complete. Never, ever will I achieve a steady state. The excavation is ongoing. There is a constant patching of one crack, only to then find that another is opening somewhere else. Careful examination reveals giant potholes. Sometimes, I fail to discover these until I am lying face down at the bottom of one, spitting out rocks. Once I extricate myself, I must go about the hard job of patching it up and repaving.

Increasingly, I am becoming more and more convinced that the concept of “balance” and the ideal of “serenity” are, in a way, illusions. Peace, it seems, may just arise from the ability to be malleable enough to seamlessly, consciously, mindfully re-prioritize with the fluid demands of each new moment. Wouldn’t it be bliss to be able to recognize a slight alteration in circumstances and let go of the needs that were so pressingly important minutes ago in order to make space for the demands of the new context? How much of the imbalance and suffering in my life springs from either an inability or a refusal to recognize and accept reality? I don’t think I can answer that question. All I can do is keep digging.

Zakim Bridge
Zakim Bridge north tower reflection at dusk,” © Chris Devers (own work), September 2008. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

Sources:

  1. Goldman N. “7 Things that Cost Less than the Big Dig,” WBUR News. Jul 12, 2012. Accessed on Apr 6, 2016.
  2. Hofherr J. “Can We Talk Rationally About the Big Dig Yet?Boston.com. Jan 5, 2015. Accessed on Apr 6, 2016.
  3. The Big Dig:  Facts and Figures,” Massachusetts Department of Transportation Highway Division. Accessed on Apr 6, 2016.

 

 

The Ripple Effect

Featured Image: “Flowers,” © Anne Helmond (own work), October 2011. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

Several days ago, a constellation of circumstances coincided that prodded my little mind to begin agitating like the trusty, top-loading washer that I bought on sale from Sears when I moved into my first “grown up” apartment. One event rotated through my thoughts, then another, and glistening bubbles began to break open on the water’s flat, unassuming surface. Each one was effervescent and shiny, reflecting rainbows of light across a delicate, tense, shifting film of shimmering soap. If I tried to hold onto any slight notion too tightly, it vanished with a soft “pop,” leaving me with nothing but an eye of soapy water. With a slow blink, I gazed again at the rising suds as they coalesced…

Something was stirring… as the tiny ripples of many disparate eventualities effervesced, their distinctive rainbows mingling into radiant beams…

Many weeks ago, my friend, Nel, sent me a small arrangement of flowers. There was a bit of hassle involved in the delivery, due to the conflicting schedules of the florist van driver and me, but in the end, it all worked out. The delivery person left the flowers in the leasing office of the apartment complex where I live, and I picked them up the following day. Of the three women who work as property managers, Lisa was the only one there that day. I explained that the flowers were from a friend back home and read the attached card, “Something beautiful for someone beautiful.”

“Aw, that’s so sweet,” Lisa observed, sentimentally. Then, with a hint of wistfulness, she added, “Nobody ever sends me flowers.” There was a twinge at my heartstrings as she spoke and a single, pizzicato note reverberated into the universe. I really should buy her some flowers, I thought.

That good intention succumbed to the busyness of my routine, the other demands of my life, this errand, and that whim. I was always pressed for time; I always produced some other excuse. I always told myself, Tomorrow, or The next time, or Today just isn’t a good day. Deep down, there was also the fear of how such an overture might be received. What would Lisa think? Would she think that I wanted some favor? Would she think that I was crazy?

Often, I tell myself that I am an obnoxious, irritating, and demanding tenant. I tell myself that the management staff consider me a difficult and unreasonable person. On more than one occasion in the past six years, Lisa and her two colleagues, Cindy and Mara, as well as the very kind and responsive maintenance worker, Hal, were exposed to me hovering at a rather heightened pitch of existence as I attempted to manage rather monumental and prolonged life stressors. At times, my abilities to cope and self-soothe were less-than-ideal. Although at other opportunities, I always paused time to smile and chat, to ask about their days and their weekend plans, or to inquire about their families, my self-portrait resembled a shrill, shrewish woman, unhinged and unbalanced. Would they just think I was trying to make up for being so high-strung and neurotic?

Then, on an unremarkable Tuesday afternoon, I was picking up yet another box (after ordering yet another book). Mara looked like she was coming to the end of a very rough day. Her face was tired and lined, and even though her eyeshadow twinkled and she smiled pleasantly, the slump of her shoulders betrayed the truth behind her cheerful, “Hello!” I remarked on the sunshine outside and the fact that in fifteen minutes she could leave the office behind to drink up the beautiful weather. She sighed, the corners of her mouth turning up a bit, but her shoulders collapsed even more. I remembered my intention to buy flowers for Lisa, and it occurred to me that Mara could probably use some flowers to brighten her day, too.

bubbles
bubbles,” © tim (own work), October 2007. CC BY 2.0. (license)

My compassion for Mara and Lisa might very well have died right there. However, the very next day, another happenstance stirred my too-often shallow, self-absorbed heart. I was perusing a story about living with integrity written by the talented Eli Pacheco on his wonderful Coach Daddy blog. I felt the inspiration to recommit myself to the LIVING of my values, and I told Eli as much in a responding comment. Driving to work, I entertained myself with contemplations of love, compassion, empathy, and wholeheartedness… and within an hour of sitting at my desk, the distractions of the day drove out all of those blissful ideals.

On my lunch break, without reason, but possibly because I was feeling even more weary and depressed than usual, I decided to head home rather than adhere to my usual routine of eating at my desk. It was only because I stepped away from the office that I thumbed my cellphone off of “airplane mode,” and skimmed my WordPress alerts. There was a message from Eli. “I want to know how your day goes!” it read. Weird, I thought. Why would Eli care about my day? It took a solid minute or two of scrolling to remember the post from the morning and to recall its impact on me at 6am. Finally, the soapy water was starting to froth.

At the end of the day, how am I going to leave the world a better place than I found it this morning? I asked myself. I sat with this question all afternoon. As I made my way home, the song playing on the strings of my heart sounded like, “Flowers for Lisa, Cindy, and Mara. Buy flowers. They might need cheering up.” All of my reasons against this course of action percolated under the surface, but I chose to follow the path of vulnerability instead. At the market down the street, I found three small pots of blooms, one yellow, one orange, and one a vibrant purple. Tentatively, I parked the car in front of the leasing office, and precipitously balancing the pots in my petite hands, I stepped over the threshold.

As it turned out, Mara wasn’t the only one who was exhausted and overworked. They were all busy and burdened with the many demands of multiple spring move-ins and move-outs. Mara explained that her son was on mid-semester break, and she was planning to take vacation to spend time at home with him, but given the demands in the office, she didn’t think she would be able to get away. I think it meant something to them that someone took the time to notice them, to ask how they were doing, and to care. The bright flowers were a bright spot in their day, which became a bright spot in my day.

Turning to leave, I couldn’t help but marvel at the chain of happenchance that resulted in a single, shared moment. Isn’t it wonderful, I thought, the effects that can manifest from one, seemingly insignificant act of kindness? In my mind, Nel and Eli deserved equal credit for planting the seeds of compassion and connection that peeked forth a tender, green shoot that afternoon.

Today, I am making an extra effort to smile at every person I pass. Maybe that person will smile at the next person, who will smile at the next person, who will change the life of someone in need.

Echinops Bubble
Echinops Bubble,” © Tom Blackwell (own work), September 2010. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

Joy in a Broken Window

Featured Image: “Snowy Highway,” © Taber Andrew Bain (own work), December 2007. CC BY 2.0. (license)

As I type away, I am gazing out the big picture window of a downtown coffee shop. The street beyond is drowning in sunlight. The temperatures outside are expected to reach 60⁰F (15.5 C) this afternoon, and the sidewalk is full of people drinking up the first sips of spring. Yet, the forecast for the week ahead includes, of all things, more snow.

Just a mere three days ago, the fluffy white stuff was falling gracefully from a cloud-obscured sky while I drove along my morning commute. I rolled down the automatic window to greet the gate attendant as I entered the complex enclosing my office building, and as I pulled up on the little, black button to raise the glass again, I heard a tremendous crashing sound from the door. “Please tell me that was a rock kicked up by another car,” I thought to myself. There were no passing cars, though, and I knew that something was broken. I pushed the button down again, apprehensively. The electric motor made a strained, whirring sound, but the pane lowered all the way. When I pulled up once more, the whirring gave way to a choked clank, and the window stuck halfway. The gentle, wet snow continued to swirl toward the earth as I drove slowly onward. A few stray flakes fluttered onto my lap as an icy wind stung my eyes.

My first reaction was to think, “It happens. The car is eight years old, after all. Stuff breaks.” I pulled into a parking space, the wind whipping across the crest of the hill and through the open gap. “Good thing I know where we keep the heavy-duty garbage bags. Really good thing I borrowed that packaging tape from J the other day! I bet neither of us would’ve guessed I’d be using it to tape a trash bag over my window!” I mused. Locking the door, the irony of the action bemusing me, I continued my inner contemplations. “It’s still really early. Maybe the dealership will have service appointments available today if I call right away. Good thing work is slow this week, and my schedule is so flexible. Maybe the repair guys can pop that huge ding out of the passenger side while they’re fixing the window!” Someone with a white door inflicted quite the dent into the dark blue mental of my front right a few weeks ago, and I was meaning to call for an estimate on that repair, anyway. My imagination chugged on. “If it won’t take long, I could just wait while they work. I could sit at the dealership and read my book! That would be way better than work. They have free coffee there!” It surprised me that I was in such a good mood given the moisture that was collecting on my leather seats and the money that I was about to shell out. Even the negative “Oh no!” reactions of my coworkers when I told them what happened couldn’t dampen the glow of joy and gratitude in my heart.

It turned out that there were indeed service appointments available at the dealership that very morning. Driving along the highway in the far right lane, trying to limit merging as best I could, intermittently craning my head to look over my left shoulder and ducking low to peer out the half-glass at the bottom of the window, I tried to tune out the deafening noise of the double-layered black trash bag buffeting against the air currents. “This really isn’t too bad, I permitted. “I’m remarkably warm and dry for being protected by just these two, thin sheets of plastic.” There weren’t many people on the road, thankfully. The wintry landscape to either side of the highway was picturesque, and I reveled in its stunning beauty. Peace, joy, and gratitude washed over me.

It occurred to me that a busted car window was more of an inconvenience than an actual suffering. Nothing truly bad happened, and I wasn’t afflicted with any pain or loss. Yet, it also dawned on me that in the not-too-distant past, even such relatively simple inconveniences threw me into fits of anxiety and distress. Instead, on that day, I viewed my broken window as an odd but marvelous gift. I wondered if my sense of calm and my ability to find delight in my circumstances was similar in some small, barely-related manner, to what so many holy people described when reflecting on the joy they found in the hardships they experienced when they were living a life dedicated to love, service, and Christ. I certainly would never begin to draw any parallels between my broken car window and their lives, by any means. The situations couldn’t be more disparate. There was no sacrifice involved on my part in leaving work for a morning to drive to the auto dealer. I definitely wasn’t serving some higher purpose or worthy cause. Yet, there was something loving and accepting in my heart that morning, and it made all the difference. I found myself wondering… It must start somewhere, right? Even if it is such a little thing?

 “Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.”

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Day 126 - For Rob
Day 126 – For Rob…” © Kate Sumbler (own work), February 2007. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

The Menu Obscura

Featured Image: “Dictionary” © Dave Worley, Mar 2009. CC BY 2.0.

Bolognese. Demi-glace. Poblana crema. Lardons. Pappardelle. Puttanesca. I guessed that airline chicken breast was not something that would be served at a cabin pressure of 8,000 feet and that tomato ragù was not the same non-descript red sauce I could find sitting in a glass jar on any supermarket shelf. My head was swimming, my heart was racing, and I could feel myself becoming dizzy as I scrolled through the bistro’s online menu. I ate there before, on more than one occasion, but by “before,” I mean… BEFORE… When I suggested to Amelia that she pick the restaurant because I was running out of ideas, I was without expectations. Quickly, I dialed Kelly, my nutritionist. “What should I do? Nothing is SAFE,” I lamented.

“Would it be all right to ask that you go to a different restaurant?” she inquired. That wasn’t the response I was anticipating from Kelly, who usually uses humor to cajole me into push my boundaries and shakes her head in mock dismay when I attempt to retreat into my cave of safety. I didn’t want to back down. Instead, I did what any right-minded, hyper-analytical, recovering orthorexic would do. I turned to Wikipedia.

It was a daunting task. Every menu option contained at least one if not five unknown (and therefore inherently dangerous, potentially lethal, might-just-cause-me-to-drop-dead-of-a-heart-attack-in-the-restaurant) elements. I started at the top. Fortunately, I discovered that I didn’t need to work my way through the entire list. All I needed was to unravel enough of the mystery that the menu didn’t scare me anymore. As I methodically searched term after term, my breath abated, my racing heart slowed, and the panic left me. “I just need to find one thing,” I muttered to myself. “Just one entre I would enjoy eating. Or tolerate.” Substitutions allowed.

Unfortunately, most cream sauces, cheese-based dishes, and any food in the noodle or pasta family remains in the might-just-cause-me-to-drop-dead-of-a-heart-attack unsafe zone. I am inching closer and closer to trying pasta again, but a touch of lactose intolerance means that I am not highly motivated to stretch my boundaries when it comes to heavily creamed or cheesed meals. Most of the dinner entrées at this particular bistro feature some combination of pasta, cream sauce, or “augratins.” The other descriptions include ingredients like chili, chili broth, chili coriander spice, chili honey, and green chili dirty rice. It turns out that poblanos and anchos are peppers. It turns out that I’m not much of a spicy, peppery kind of girl.

I think it’s to my credit that I remained open-minded about the menu. Once I settled my initial startle reflex, of course. The herb crusted airline chicken breast looked like the most comfortable choice, but I wasn’t opposed to trying something a bit more challenging. It was winter restaurant week in Vanillasville, and I anticipated that the place would be bustling, but as our hostess escorted us to a small table against a far wall, I felt my expectations for the evening peel away like the splitting of a flower’s calyx to reveal the whorl of colorful petals within. The joy of being out with Amelia for the first time in three weeks swept away any anxiety about the linguine and tortellini. It was quiet, almost subdued and there was more than one empty table. A book club was meeting in the large event room behind our wall, but despite the placidity, even our cheerful waiter, Danny, seemed to join in our exuberance. I sighed; I smiled; I blossomed.

“Do you have any questions about the menu?” Danny asked. I was undecided between the airline breast and the tuna ahi puttanesca. According to Wikipedia, the word was an adjective to describe pasta “in the style of a prostitute,” which was just a bit ambiguous. His face brightened and his hands waved as he described the diced tomatoes, capers, and olives that comprised the sauce. It sounded delicious… but I stuttered and stalled at the spaghetti upon which it was served. Maybe next time.

“I’ll have the herb crusted chicken and tomato polenta,” I requested. The concept that tomato polenta sounded appealing to me was earth-shattering enough, and I was not disappointed. I lost track of the number of times I exclaimed, “I can’t believe how GOOD this is!” I closed my eyes and delighted in the flavor, the texture, the consistency, of each of the different ingredients, and the way the garnish of carmelized carrot shavings melted ephemerally into my tongue. When the dishes were cleared, the conversation continued. Amelia is one of the few people in Vanillasville with whom I can be entirely, wholly, authentically, messily, unabashedly myself. We share a history and a trust that doesn’t just happen. “I can’t believe I almost missed this,” I thought. “I can’t believe that we might not have come here because I was scared.” My heart was over-brimming.

When I returned to my apartment, I slept more soundly than any night in at least the previous two weeks. Snug in the warmth of fleece blankets and soft pillows, I was nestled in the comfort of friendship. Knowledge is power. It gave me the courage to nudge myself forward. But…

Connection changes everything.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Purple hydrangea,” © tanakawho, Feb 2009. CC BY-NC 2.0.

Christmas Was

Featured Image: “Deep inside the ornaments…” © Windell Oskay, Dec 2006. CC BY 2.0.

A good friend stopped in on Tuesday night, and it was a comfort to my mind, my heart, and my physical being to see her after my week away. In broad strokes and fine lines, she painted the picture of her holiday visit from her co-dependent parents. As the vivid colors swirled together, I could begin to make out the shape of the upheaval their stay caused in her life. We laughed, we cringed, and I let slip one or two profanities. Then, it was my turn.

“Where do I even begin?” I wondered aloud. I sat on the champagne colored carpet of my living room floor, my back against the armrest of the sofa, tracing a directionless loop between its piles with my finger. How could I start to describe the events that transpired between the twentieth and twenty-seventh of December? I tried to write about it so many times, but the words would not unite. Fragments of adjectives, nouns, and verbs crashed into each other in my mind. I couldn’t put a single sentence on the page. This blog fell silent, and the empty echoes of my lost voice rattled me just as much as the deluge that seemed to pummel me from without. When I finally managed to form a description of how I was feeling, I composed the following on Christmas day:

I was flooded with thoughts and emotions tumbling together like a mass of tennis shoes in an industrial-sized drier. Hot pressure mounted as laces knotted and snarled. I couldn’t tease one reaction apart from another, couldn’t make sense of the logic from the feeling, and my brain screamed, “Turn it off!

Can't handle the pressure
Can’t… handle… the… pressure…” © nils.rohwer, Jan 2013. CC BY-NC 2.0.

The story was so twisted that I couldn’t find the ends to untangle it. Yet, I began. Soon, a string of events tumbled forth in no particular order, building off of each other with haphazard fluidity. Each time I thought the surge was cresting, another wave broke, while my friend listened with energetic attention and patient compassion. Finally, when I was done, she offered, “You were in survival mode. That’s all it was, just surviving.” That was why I couldn’t write. That was why I didn’t do better. Frustrating as it was.

Frustrating as it still remains with each recollection and retelling.

It shouldn’t have been so hard. I should have acted differently. I was aware of the instances when I was reacting. I could distinguish when I was using blame, judgment, and shame as defensive and offensive weapons, both against myself and others. At those moments, I held my reasonable mind against my emotional mind and chose the latter. I should have used the skills I learned. I should have made different choices.

Isn’t that the catch? Should may be one of the trickiest words in the English language. If is a close runner-up.

What exactly happened? The details of the actual events are not terribly important now. Rest assured, it was not about the food.

Could it be that the sounder I become in mind and spirit, the more plainly I observe the disorder around me? As I learn healthy coping skills for the first time in my life, return visits to the place of my dysfunctional origin is interesting when that environment remains mostly unchanged.

It shouldn’t have been so hard, but it was. “Grist for the mill,” my therapist called it. I called it fertilizer.

Maybe some learning and growth will come from it. For once, I am grateful for the 750 miles that separate me from the place I call home. Vanillasville seems pretty nice right now.

Today, I’m not going to blame, judge, or shame myself or others. I already did enough of that to last a lifetime. No. It is what it is, and it was what it was, and what will be what will be.

Instead, I choose to remember the joy of Christmas Eve with an amazing friend and her family, watching my delighted goddaughter unwrap her presents. I will cherish her pure excitement at the discovery of her new fire truck with its flashing lights and screeching siren. I will focus on the serenity of a Christmas Day bike ride, when temperatures peaked in the mid-60s and the air felt fresh and exhilarating upon my skin, and I will recollect the peaceful flow of early morning yoga. Finally, I will remember the wholehearted conversation with my mother on Christmas night that allowed us both to move an inch closer.

It’s a relief that it is over. It wasn’t pretty. I was hurt, and I hurt others. And I should’ve done better. I am telling myself that recognizing the gulf between who I am and who I want to be is the first step in bridging it.

Today I am choosing acceptance.

Christmas sno-globe
Christmas sno-globe” © McBeth, Nov 2004. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

 

 

 

 

Attack of the Killer Sundae

Picture this – the pressures of work are mounting, the daily grind is bearing down, and just when it gets to be too much… VACATION!!!  WOOHOO!!!  On July 3rd, I kicked the dust (or should I say mud, because it seems like it’s been raining for a month straight) of Vanillasville from my feet and hit the road with an assortment of Mozart CD’s and one very unhappy cat.  Fourteen (FOURTEEN!) hours of driving later, we were in New England.  [Cue angel choir!]

Two Angels Singing by Benjamin West
“Two Angels Singing,” by Benjamin West

For Independence Day, I ventured off to join Alice, my former college roommate, and her extended family at her mother’s house.  Her mom and dad just happened to live along the parade route in her hometown.  I was so eager to see the joyful, excited expressions on the faces of her children, especially three-year-old Elliot, who loves not only firetrucks but pretty much anything that can transport a human being from one place to another, that I almost didn’t think to plan for the “food situation.” …

One of the factors that is extremely helpful in my recovery is that so many people know about my eating disorder.  Don’t mistake me,  I still feel hugely terrified of what might happen if the whole world found out, and there’s a reason that this blog is pretty much anonymous for the time being, but just about everyone who was going to be at this little Fourth of July gathering knew all about the BED and the orthorexia.  Alice and her mom actually flew to Vanillasville last autumn to check up on me as I rapidly decompensated while awaiting insurance authorization for partial hospitalization treatment.  (If that’s not true friendship, then I don’t know what is.)

Another fundamental component of my ED recovery is PLANNING, which I am usually reluctant to do for some reason.  Maybe part of me hopes that by avoiding thinking about a “problem” (most people might not consider dinner with friends at a delicious restaurant a problem, but hey, this is the world I live in) it will either magically (a) disappear, or (b) resolve itself.  Needless to say, the non-planning (aka avoidance) approach usually plays out a bit rougher than the I’m-mentally/emotionally/physically-ready-so-let’s-try-to-remember-our-skills-and-be-FLEXIBLE-while-sticking-to-the-general-idea-of-a-plan approach.

Remembering how many times my nutritionist stressed the importance of planning for flexibility to me, I packed myself a lunch, tossed some emergency snacks in the car, and set off, using the hour drive from my parents’ house to northern Mass to run through my whole, long list of coping skills, reiterating to myself all the reasons why everything was going to be OK.  Then, I congratulated myself for being so phenomenal, prepared, and ready for flexibility.  (Notice a theme?  My rigidity with food and perfectionism are some of my major stumbling blocks in my recovery.)

When I arrived in MA, it was all bear-hugs and smiles.  Though I saw Alice, her husband, and kids a few months earlier, it was the first time I was seeing her dad and brother in about seven years!  Of course, the table was spread with food, as I figured it might be.  “That’s OK,” I told myself.  “I could eat this food if I wanted to, and it would be fine, but I know that I am going to face many food challenges this week, and I am going to pick and choose which to confront, so today I will just eat the sandwich I brought in my lunch bag.  Neither choice is good or bad, they are both acceptable options with their own pros and cons, and I am making my conscientious decision.”  Woohoo!  Go me!

Reflections of Earth 9,” © Benjamin D. Esham, Jan 2008. CC-BY-SA-3.0 US.

“And after lunch, we are going to have an ICE CREAM SUNDAE BAR!” Alice’s mother exclaimed with delight.  “It really can’t be the Fourth of July without ice cream sundaes, especially in Massachusetts.  It’s an American tradition!”

The Scream
“The Scream,” by Edvard Munch, 1893. PD-US-1923.

So here’s the short version of the long history between me and ice cream.  You see, I was raised by a wonderful, loving, well-intentioned but tragically misguided woman who instilled in me such core values as hard work, discipline, and perseverance.  I also learned along the course that emotions get in the way of perfection, and that if I or my work are not perfect, the only recourse is to try harder.  Phrases such as, “Get over it,” “Just do what you have to do,” and “God helps those who help themselves,” were frequently heard in my house when I was growing up.  My father, for his part, suffers from serious depression and what I think is possibly a personality disorder characterized by frequent outbursts of rage.  I would like to believe that he means well and does his best, though his best does not include professional help or treatment.  Emotions, especially strong negative emotions like the ones I witnessed my father acting out, were NOT tolerable and were to be suppressed by any means possible.  I imagined myself as a hardened, steely professional – cold, precise, and successful.  Well, as you can imagine, realizing this ideal was pretty darn impossible, because, it turns out, I am not actually a robot!  Who knew?!  And just to show that there are no hard feelings… or that I’m at least working through my feelings… this next picture is for my dad, a die-hard Trekker.  It turns out I’m not a Vulcan, either.

Lesson in eating disorder recovery #1: Apparently, not feeling emotions is only ok for robots and Vulcans.
Lesson in eating disorder recovery #1: Apparently, not feeling emotions is only OK for robots and Vulcans. (Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock, Desilu Productions/NBC Television, 1976/77, US-PD-no notice.)

OK, you’re probably thinking, “This is the short version?”  Suppressing all emotions turned out to be not-so-easy.  Where could I turn when I was “feeling” confused, angry, sad, overwhelmed, overjoyed, stressed, anxious, scared, enraged, rejected, hurt, depressed, bored, excited, or happy?  Well, pretty much any food would do, and sometimes things that didn’t even count as food.  (Yes, I’ve eaten kitty kibble before.  Yeah, it’s gross, I know.)  But ICE CREAM was my old friend and standby.  My mom always kept at least one or two gallons in the freezer, and I started digging into those when I was pretty young (about 10 years old or so, if I remember correctly).  When my binging really spiraled out of control, I was spending a small fortune at the ice cream parlor around the street from my house, where they knew me by name because I stopped by several times a week for an extra large sundae and a couple chocolate bars… to top off the two to three meals and half of a vending machine I’d already eaten that afternoon.  I digress.

As I work through my recovery, I am gradually reintroducing many of the foods I was afraid of back into my diet and learning to love them.  Peanut butter, bread, snap peas, walnuts, cottage cheese, hot chocolate… I can keep all of those in my kitchen without a second’s hesitation.  OK, sometimes the hot chocolate trips me up a little.  I even practiced becoming more comfortable eating desserts.  After my blood sugar didn’t plummet and I didn’t go running for the cupboards in full-on binging mode when my nutritionist at Walden forced me to eat two Hershey Kisses and ONLY two Hershey Kisses as my mid-morning snack (the trauma!), I started to understand that I don’t need to be afraid of these foods.  With a lot of practice, patience, and self-forgiveness, I am learning how to enjoy them responsibly (and now I sound like a liquor commercial).  However, I am still basically terrified of ice cream.  Like, TERRIFIED.  We’re talking, I-don’t-know-what-I-might-do-and-I’m-really-afraid-I’m-going-to-blow-my-whole-recovery-because-I-can’t-control-myself level fear.

The afternoon passed very pleasantly, despite the cool and drizzly weather.  It was comfortable and heartening to be with Alice and her family.  I couldn’t help but wonder what I would do when it came time for sundaes, however.  Honestly unsure of how I would respond, I felt confused and conflicted.  My sweet tooth was itching to participate in the sundae extravaganza, but I couldn’t distinguish my distorted thoughts from my reasonable and wise thoughts.  “It’s all right to eat ice cream,” I told myself.  “It’s unrealistic to think that I will never have another ice cream sundae again.”  Yet, a single serving of ice cream is only half of a cup, and that is a complete dessert exchange.  Adding toppings, whipped cream, and a cherry just seemed so DISORDERED.  “If everyone else eats ice cream sundaes, it must be normal,” I tried to reassure myself.  “Am I really going to be the only person here who doesn’t have any of the ice cream?”

Elliot was the one who finally spurred us out of our relaxed conversations and toward the dessert table.  “Is it ICE CREAM TIME yet?!” he demanded.  I felt fear and anxiety swelling inside.  My mind still wasn’t settled, and so I hung back, deciding, “Let me watch to see what everyone else does first.  Then I will know what is normal.”

Like a lemming lead to an ice creamy cliff.
Like a lemming led to an ice creamy cliff. (“Die Gartenlaube,” by Friedrich Specht, 1886. PD-old-70.)

As I was peer-pressuring myself into over-eating ice cream, I neglected to consider this pivotal question. What the heck is “normal,” anyway? If “normal” means going along with the majority, that may not be healthy, balanced, well-adjusted, or ideal.  Eating issues are rampant in the United States, and the National Institutes of Health estimate that 3.5% of women and 2% of men suffer from BED at some point in their lives (Hudson, et al. The prevalence and correlates of eating disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication.  Biol Psychiatry 2007; 61: 348-358).  That’s 1 in every 20 people!  My ability to brain-dump my common sense in moments of panic is remarkable.  Rather than trust my own judgment, I decided that I was the least reliable judge of what was best.  It’s not that Alice and her family were piling their bowls sky-high.  Actually, I was so preoccupied by the thoughts, emotions, and physical feelings flooding me, that I wasn’t paying very close attention.  The point is that I completely discredited my Wise Mind, tumbling headlong into the distortions of my disorder.

Standing before the table, with several gallons of ice cream before me, M&M’s, sprinkles, hot fudge and caramel sauce, strawberries, whipped cream, every delicious topping I could desire, I could feel my chest tightening.  My throat began to close, my vision narrowed, and my breathing became fast and shallow.  I felt my heart racing, slamming away ineffectively as the blood drained from my face.  My periphery started to go dark, and I felt a sweat breaking out.  Tears threatened to well behind my eyes.  “What do I do?  What do I DO?  WHAT DO I DO?!!!” were the only words that would come to my stricken brain.  “Everyone is going to see that I am freaking out.  Everyone is thinking that I’m a basket case and totally pathetic and weak and screwed up.”

Finally, a different voice spoke up and said, “No matter what you choose, you are still OK!  No choice that you can make right now is going to be your ruin, and passing out would be worse than any decision you might make, which is what is going to happen in another minute or so…So just do SOMETHING.  It’ll be all right.”  It sounded as near to my Wise Mind as I was likely to come, and so I reached for the scooper and began to hesitantly, fearfully, uncertainly construct my sundae.

If everything always went perfectly, I would never learn or grow.  I learned a lot that afternoon, and a deliciously sweet lesson it was.  There was plenty of fodder for discussion with my therapist and nutritionist when I returned from vacation.  Perhaps the biggest lesson was to trust myself, without comparisons to others, deciding in my own Wise Mind, according to my values, with the help of the professionals I’ve been working with, what is best for me.  Oh, and I really need to keep working on my ice cream issues.