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)

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


The Three Day Quote Challenge, Day Three

Featured Image:  “Covered,” © Chris Winters (own work), June 2014. CC BY-SA 2.0. (license)

Here it is, the final day of the challenge! Thank you for reading and for allowing me to share some of my favorite quotations with you. To conclude the challenge, here is a sampling for you to take with you into your day.

“One cannot judge the beauty of a path merely by looking at its entrance.”

~ Paulo Coelho

“The same everlasting Father who cares for you today will care for you tomorrow and every day. Either he will shield you from suffering or give you unfailing strength to bear it. Be at peace then and put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginings.”

~ St. Francis de Sales

“Go out into the world today and love the people you meet. Let your presence light new light in the hearts of people.”

~ Blessed Mother Teresa

 

My final nominees to carry on this challenge are…

The rules of the challenge are pretty easy:

  1. Three days
  2. Three quotes per day
  3. Three nominations per day

Enjoy! ♥

The Three Day Quote Challenge, Day Two

Featured Image: “Mother Teresa,” © Troy (own work), July 2012. CC BY-SA 2.0. (license)

One of the people who inspires me beyond measure is Blessed Mother Teresa. It is hard to look upon her example without feeling inadequate and unworthy, but my authentic heart tells me that my inwardly-directed guilt and shame are contrary to her message and her great love. When I begin to think that I am not doing enough with my life or the resources with which I’m blessed, the words of this saintly woman show me mercy and encourage me to deeper faith. Stretching my comfort zone is supposed to sting, but I am reminded to be patient with myself and to begin again in my own little way of kindness.

“I would rather make mistakes in kindness and compassion than work miracles in unkindness and hardness.”

~ Blessed Mother Teresa

“We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.”

~ Blessed Mother Teresa

“The greatest disease in the West today is not TB or leprosy; it is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for. We can cure physical diseases with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness, despair, and hopelessness is love. There are many in the world who are dying for a piece of bread but there are many more dying for a little love. The poverty in the West is a different kind of poverty – it is not only a poverty of loneliness but also of spirituality. There’s a hunger for love, as there is a hunger for God.”

~ Blessed Mother Teresa

Today’s nominees…

The rules are pretty simple.

  1. Three days
  2. Three quotes per day
  3. Three nominations per day

Thanks for reading my post, and please check out these other great blogs! ♥

Before the Kindness Challenge – To Reignite the Inner Light

Featured Image:  “Candle” © Walt Stoneburner (own work), Oct 2011. CC BY 2.0. (license)

In the current chaos of my life, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. My little raft is tossing about on some pretty turbulent and stormy waters, and sometimes it feels like all I can do is hold fast. At times, it even feels as though I’m already overboard, and I’m just clinging to the lines, choking on salt spray, and struggling to drag myself out of the waves. As my fingers tip-tap over the keys today, I am floating through a momentary calm. My emotions are steady, my breathing is easier, and my friends are close at heart. However, it’s hurricane season in my metaphorical ocean. I know that there will be more storms to weather before all the present uncertainty works itself out.

The challenges that I am confronting right now are difficult and triggering in an unfamiliar way. The last time I felt remotely similar, I was still at Walden undergoing partial hospitalization treatment for my eating disorder. As days become weeks and weeks coalesce into months, the emotional and psychological demands of the evolving circumstances become increasingly taxing. The acuity and extremity of the stress makes it hard for me to access and utilize the skills that I didn’t realize were becoming lax with disuse. Incorporating elements of mindfulness, dialectical thinking, CBT, and the other tools that I once practiced diligently into my daily life means that I don’t pay as much attention to the focused, attentive, and deliberate training that it required to build those habits. When I am in crisis, I can’t recall how I once managed distress tolerance. When my emotions are roiling out of control, I know that I am in desperate need of emotional regulation, but I don’t remember how to do it.

In addition to the pain that I experience on account of the uncertainty of life, there is the pain of my secondary emotions. I am upset about being upset, and I am frustrated that I am frustrated, and I am angry because I am angry. Such secondary emotions only deepen the darkness and tip me closer to despair. That is one reason why I am grateful for the first annual Kindness Challenge. It couldn’t be more appropriately timed. Just as I feel the light in me flickering unsteadily, here is a choice to pursue a different course. A course of kindness. A choice for life. I hope that, no matter what occurs over the next seven weeks, I can embrace this challenge and nurture that little flicker in my heart.

#RevofKindness #bekind

“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience…And over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection. And let the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace into which you were also called in one body. And be thankful.”

~ Colossians 3:12,14-15

kindnesschallenge

Change

“Isn’t it funny how day by day nothing changes, but when you look back everything is different?”

~ C.S. Lewis

On a cursory glance through my recent blog entries, it would appear that one of my oft-recurring, favorite themes to expound upon is change. The very title of the blog suggests as much. If I am as objective as I can be (who among us is really, truly objective when considering our own lives?), I cannot deny that I am undergoing noticeable changes. Certain moments and circumstances lend more readily to introspection and reflection. This season of Easter and the rebirth of spring is one of those periods.  However, while I fully acknowledge that some of my ways of acting are different and that, through practice and repeated exposures, I am building new tools for responding to previously triggering stimuli, at the end of the day, the question remains… am I really changing? Am I, as a person, as a human being with a heart, soul, mind, and will, actually growing? As I type this, am I any better today than I was yesterday, or last week, or last month, or last year?

“Each person’s task in life is to become an increasingly better person.”

~ Leo Tolstoy

A short time ago, the wonderfully insightful Maria, author of the blog “Small Changes for Life,” wrote in a post, “You know what’s amazing? We were all created with the ability to change. It’s the one true constant we can all see in nature with our eyes, but what’s really fantastic is we can also change on purpose.” As I read those words, I found myself wondering… do I believe that I am capable of change?

“True progress quietly and persistently moves along without notice.”

~ St. Francis de Sales

In my logical, cognitive, analytical, mind, I know that I am constantly changing. I am never the same from one moment to the next. Even writing this blog post is stimulating neurons to fire in my cerebral cortex. I’m connecting axons and dendrites in novel ways while reinforcing other patterns already laid down. As my fingers plunk away at the keys, the muscle fibers contract and relax, strengthening ever so subtly with the repeated motion. I will never undo the events that transpired earlier in the day, and I will never un-write the memories that I created. Those memories will continue to be shaped and re-interpreted with each successive experience of my life, morphing and adapting in the fluidity of my existence. Time does not unwind. When I post this piece, I will not be the same as I was when I started composing it. Even the universe itself is constantly expanding. This idea of ever-shifting context is comforting when I face setbacks in my eating disorder recovery. When those setbacks cause tremendous emotional upheaval and self-doubt, it is particularly easy for me to tell myself that all of the skills I was previously using, all the insights I discovered and practices I developed at Walden, are just-plain-gone. However, when I can recollect myself long enough to remember that there is no going back, I can find the courage to believe that a setback is sometimes just another step on the recovery journey, albeit a painful one.

“Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending.”

~ Maria Robinson

So, yes, the part of my brain that loves to theorize and cogitate relishes the knowledge that change is constant. However…

When I look deep into my heart, my core beliefs tell me a different tale. In my most fundamental interior place, the belief that I hold in the center of my soul is one of immutability, incapability, and worthlessness. And, oh, how it breaks my heart to know this to be my conviction! Sitting quietly by myself, with my open journal and a pen, delving into my deepest recesses, I write these words: “I find myself a loathsome, miserable, useless wretch. I am filled with despair.” What happens if I believe that it is impossible to avoid change, and at the same time, I don’t believe that I am capable of the changes I long to see in myself? This question is one that I cannot answer. Yet, at some level, whether superficial or central, I must believe that I can somehow, at some time, overcome all the faults and weaknesses of character that I find so desperately troubling. If I didn’t, how could I still be here, today, trying?

“Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says I’ll try again tomorrow.”

~ Mary Anne Radmacher

Featured Image: “heart is in my hands,” © Shimelle Laine (own work), Apr 2007. CC BY 2.0. (license)

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)

Transitioning

Featured Image: “SPRING BUDS ROBIN,” © Mary Shattock (own work), February 2015. CC BY-SA 2.0. (license)

On Tuesday, a week ago, the sun broke through the clouds and illuminated the landscape in color. It chased away the muted tones of winter with a stiff gust, sending a scattering of dead leaves, a few old seed pods, and the detritus of sand and salt into gutters and crevices, making way for something fresh and new. The temperature climbed above 70 F for the first time, hinting impishly at the changes to come. My soul sighed with the gentle whispers of early spring. My breath rose and fell in a placid rhythm with the warm, radiating light as it crossed its zenith and slowly, subtly dipped toward the horizon. At the most western edge of a time zone, before any adjustment for Daylight Saving, that ball of brilliance didn’t complete its setting until a few minutes before the hands of the clock marked 7 pm. For a hesitant instant, the world was cast into a dim twilight, and then… darkness.

In the morning when I woke and pulled back my blinds, the light of day was already broken open, and a cacophony of birdsong greeted me. For the first time in 2016, it was warm enough at the beginning of the day to heave open the heavy, sliding glass door leading to the patio and the little pond beyond. The cool breeze tickled my cheek, and I listened to the low, resonant notes of the wind chimes while I ate my oatmeal and sipped my coffee.

Yes, spring is here. The transition from winter to the season of longer days and warmer weather is invigorating. Winter possesses its own unique, precious beauty, but by March I am invariably weary. My eyes grow too accustomed to the palate of the season, and I begin to see only drabness and dullness where once I appreciated the simplistic nakedness of those spare and stark months. Yet, even as I feel my heart fluttering happily with the wings of the birds that are flitting overhead, I acknowledge this truth… transitions are hard. I am so grateful. I am overwhelmed by the blessing it is to be able to welcome spring with joy and delighted expectation. It is only on account of my painful struggle through this transition last year that I can rally the confidence to be comforted by the melting away of this present March.

A person might wonder what could possibly be so distressing about the arrival of spring and summer. The fact of the matter was that I knew how to “be in recovery” in the cold and dark, when the whole world around me was in a state of hibernation, but I knew nothing of how to be out in the light. As the days lengthened, I grew increasingly scared, overwhelmed, anxious, dissatisfied, disappointed, and edgy. At times, my fear of summer was so intense that I was reduced to hyperventilation and tears. Evenings were particularly difficult, when the sun would hang above the horizon for hour after uncomfortable hour. Why should it matter whether I ate dinner while it was daylight or dark? But it did. The world outside my window was coaxing me to join it, and I was terrified.

My friends and neighbors peeled off their parkas and sweaters and resumed their warm-weather hobbies. All about me, Vanillasville stirred from its deep slumber and took to the streets and sidewalks. As I drove to and from work, the grocery store, church, my therapist’s office, or the coffee shop, I saw people running, walking, biking, pushing strollers, laughing, smiling, playing… living. I enjoyed my safe, protected, indoor life. It was familiar, and suddenly it felt threatened. I didn’t know how to cope out there. Like a bird whose cage door was finally opened after a long captivity, I clung to the perch I knew while crying out mournfully, staring at the freedom that lay just beyond the threshold I was too frightened to cross.

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Fugl i bur (du må vel være sur),” © Erik (own work), July 2011. CC BY 2.0. (license)

It would be wonderful if I could tell a nice, neat story of pushing my boundaries, venturing into the unfamiliar, and discovering an amazing, incredible world. Such a tale would be a lie, though. In some ways, I suppose I did challenge myself, bit by bit. I learned to love the merriment of summer gradually the more I ventured out. However, the transition was incredibly painful in every respect – mentally, emotionally, and, particularly, physically. It was rough. It sucked. And I survived. I grew, I learned, and I came to a better understanding of myself.

One of the many pieces of the intricate puzzle of my transition was my relationship with my body. How active could I be? What could I tolerate? After so many injuries and so much illness, I viewed myself as fundamentally broken, and I continued to suffer a great deal of both physical and psychological pain. It took a tremendous leap of faith for me to stop exercising when I entered partial hospitalization in late November. December, January, and February allowed my body an opportunity to rest and heal. For the first time in my entire life, I experienced bodily stillness. Incrementally, the sedentariness that began as tortuous became reassuring. Breaking free of that static inertia was even more difficult, because I placed the weight of my recovery on the structure of my routine. It would be impossible to provide a detailed description of what forcing my way forward felt like. At one moment, I was filled with hope, anticipating a quick rejoining of the “normal” world. The next afternoon, I would be tearfully hunched on the floor, massaging my feet, lamenting the plantar fasciitis that would never get better and all the activities I would never be able to enjoy, lost in complete despair. Every step was a struggle. Literally. With the dedicated, compassionate help of my therapist, my psychiatrist, and some close friends, I continued to place one foot in front of another. Their patience, diligence, and empathy were astounding, especially when considered in retrospect. I was panicky, needy, and often unreasonable or irrational. The journey was slow and agonizing, but by the end of the summer, I was able to walk without pain. Likewise, the lingering symptoms from my year-long war with a chronic, relentless gastrointestinal illness were finally, miraculously abating, almost exactly a year after my treatments themselves concluded.

After coming through those trials, I find myself with increased confidence and a foundation upon which to build my hope. Whatever disruption, inconvenience, or discomfort may arise, I know that it is but a little swell in the great sea of life. I know that I am adaptable, and that I can change with the season. After weathering one storm, I understand what it feels like to be tossed about, and I know how to tolerate that distress. I know that the storms don’t last. Yes, transitions are hard – even the good ones. For those of you who may be struggling with a transition, big or small, know that the sun is coming out again. It’s a warm, radiant, spring sun. It’s just hidden behind the stormy clouds.

Welcome, spring!

“For I know well the plans I have in mind 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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duckling,” © kittykat2682 (own work), December 2010. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

Leaping

Featured Image: “Der Nebel am Morgen 2,” David Schiersner (own work), September 2015. CC BY 2.0. (license)

It seems as if, in some ways, Leap day possess an eerie, mystical, time-warping quality. It holds a place on our calendars because of decisions made by Roman emperors wielding absolute authority thousands of years ago. We still measure time and space by their ancient governance. Their influence remains ever-present and barely noticed, but on one day every four years, this decree by Julius Caesar almost bends the universe.

There was something strange and secretive in the air when I sucked in my first breath of the morning on February 29th. It felt as though the uniquely extra day hung suspended in its own plane of existence. To step out of bed was to cross into another dimension, one that could only be entered every four years and could only be dwelt in for a brief twenty-four hours. At the stroke of midnight, the portal would close, and all would be just as it was before. While in this dimension, though, February 29th, 2012 happened only yesterday, and tomorrow would give rise to the year 2020.

Day 60
Day 60,” © Matt Preston (own work), February 2012. CC BY-SA 2.0. (license)

On Monday morning, I turned myself out of bed and placed my feet on the carpeted floor. It was the same beige-colored, worn pile that I tread the previous day. It was also the place where I knelt four years ago and tearfully begged God to bring an end to my suffering. One way or another. That winter was a brutal one. It was particularly snowy, and the burden of flu and respiratory illness was heavy on everyone. The bitter sting of the cold and the darkness of the shortened days were nothing compared to the hatred, pain, anger, and fear that I was carrying in my heart. For reasons that would be too complex to delve into, work was unforgiving during that month of February 2012. I was logging 100-hour weeks, and I held the life and death of people who trusted me in my hands every day. My own life teetered precariously on a ledge. Self-care was an unknown concept for me for most of my life. At that time, pain, suffering, and anxiety were measures of effort. And, oh, was I exceeding maximum effort. Yet, it was unfathomable to imagine relinquishing even a modicum of control or resting for even the briefest moment. Death was preferable to showing any weakness. Keenly aware of all my inadequacies and failures, I would rather dig my own grave and cover myself over than ever allow another soul to perceive me as less than perfect. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, I berated myself incessantly. Nothing that I did was ever good enough, and I hated myself with a venomous passion. Nothing that anyone else did ever satisfied my standards, either, and I hated the world.

Disappointment and failure were my constant companions. Suicidal? Yes. To yield to those thoughts would be to accept my defeat, though. It was the only time that I ever actually retreated to the bathroom, locked the door behind me, and slid to the floor, collapsing into a heaving pile of tears (while at work, at least). Then, I washed my face, and I carried on. Though I screamed inside, “Why won’t anyone do anything? Why won’t anyone help me?” I never asked. I never reached out, and I never let anyone past my barricades. The cracks were clearly visible. A mentor pulled me aside one day, as the pace was lessening, and advised me that I needed to pull it together in the future. Raging and seething and destroying myself internally, I carried on. Amazingly, astoundingly, that month was not my “rock bottom.” I binged occasionally, but my disordered eating never reached the severity that it would two years later when I did finally hit my “rock bottom.” In the interceding interval, my situation dramatically improved, and my life became much more manageable for a time. It would take a great deal more than the suffering of February 2012 to bring about my near-destruction.

Reflecting on that month, I was astounded by my strength. My main coping skills were avoidance, denial, anger, hatred, psychological self-abuse, and my disordered eating. They were all I knew. Yet, I not only survived, I excelled at my job. The weight of the obstacles I faced was crushing, and I overcame them by sheer determination and the force of my spite. In the bizarre universe of leap days, I found a backwards gratitude for my poisonous emotions and my self-destructive thoughts and behaviors. They kept me alive, and they made me more than successful. The course I was on led me down the path that put me in a place where, when my “rock bottom” happened, I was able to obtain the help that I needed to begin to recover. Reaching across the curvilinear span of years, I saw the hand of God artistically weaving all the pieces together. Artistic like Picasso’s cubist works – a jumble of fractured shapes coming together to form something more. Getting help required recognizing my toxic emotions for what they were, methods of self-protection and avoidance. More devastatingly, it meant showing my imperfections to others and embracing my complete lack of control and my utter terror in the face of profound uncertainty. To make a trite analogy, it took a desperate leap of faith. It didn’t feel quite as graceful as an orchestrated leap, however. It was more akin to a pathetic and despairing flinging of my weakened, broken body into the abyss. The journey from that point was painful in a different way, but in the last two years, I finally started to let go of all of the bile I was clinging to. Finally, I began to love. On February 29th, 2016, I found myself with an open, mindful, grateful heart, awed and inspired by my relentless, merciless, fractured, persevering, gunner self of yesterday.

When I awake on February 29th, 2020, will I gaze upon the same white, textured ceiling? Will my toes curl into a slightly more worn, beige carpet? Will I know myself any better than I do today? Will I be the same person that I am right now? Where will I find myself on this confusing, circuitous, confounding journey? The vortex is closed now, and I am placing one foot at a time, trying to find the next best thing. Until tomorrow, then…

Tomorrow ripe
tomorrow ripe / Morgenreif,” © David Schiersner (own work), February 2014. CC BY 2.0.