“Be humble towards God and gentle with your neighbor. Judge and accuse no one but yourself, and ever excuse others. Speak of God always to praise and glorify Him, speak of your neighbor only with respect – do not speak of yourself at all, either well or ill.”
~ St. Margaret Mary Alacoque
Did you know that the origin of the word “humility” comes from the Latin word for earth? As in dirt. Ground. Humilis… humilitas… to be close to the ground. To know one’s place. To be firmly rooted in a reality of self. In preparation for a blog post that I was intending to write, I stumbled upon the above quote by St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, the patroness of my childhood parish. After reading her words, I abandoned my mental outlines. Do I know the truth about my weaknesses and appreciate the source and limitations of my strengths? Do I possess a healthy understanding of my nothingness? Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. It would seem that those questions are better meditated upon in private. Thus, instead of my typical soul-searching post, I leave you to reflect on her advice for yourself. Before I go, so that we all might have a little something to smile about today, here is one final pearl of wisdom.
“Humility is like underwear; essential, but indecent if it shows.”
Part of the human condition is that we all contain within us something abhorrent. (At least, that is what I’m telling myself.) At our deepest core is nestled a beautiful soul, God-given and graced, and we are capable of great goodness. Yet, none of us ever live up to all of our values all of the time. There is always a conflict under the surface. When everything is going well, when all the potential stressors in my life are minimized, I neglect this grimy underside of my human reality.
There are many monsters in my closet, and, though I may put on a good show of vulnerability and openness, I do not enjoy inviting them out for tea or cake. I prefer it when those monsters lie silently in the dark. When they are quiet and cooperative, they allow me to narrate a promising story of self-improvement and growth that is colorful and filled with light. When my world becomes more chaotic, it is increasingly impossible to maintain this illusion. As the veneer of my carefully constructed, idealized self displays its true fragility, those demons emerge to help me cope. They bare their teeth and unsheathe their claws, gnashing their jaws against the suggestion that my life is not rhythmic, predictable, balanced, and fair. When other people, the world, and extraneous circumstances exert their force on me, I fight back. My monsters include Non-acceptance, Unwillingness, Defiance, Self-Righteousness, Blame, and Anger. They serve me well. They are quick to leap to the defense of Order, Control, Obedience, Rules, Self-Sufficiency, and Safety.
One week last October, I fell back into a self-protective, self-defensive mode of reacting as the burden and pace of work demands mushroomed. I was confronted with a sharp incongruence between conflicting priorities. In my recovering perfectionism, I was still striving to understand my identity apart from my professional life. I was messily attempting to establish boundaries with myself and with others in order to create the space and silence that I needed to explore and preserve my authenticity, and I recoiled against any unanticipated demand on my time or attention. My constant inner monologue was a noisy place of overlapping ultimatums and thinly veiled threats. One word was dominant as I attempted to respond simultaneously to all of the mixed messages I was sending myself: Should. Sometimes, it was expressed as “must,” or “need to” in the intensity of my strict expectations. “I should be able to run these tests myself. I need to finish these reports by the end of the day. I should NOT stay late. I must go to the gym on Tuesday, and I should still go to church after work. I should swim on Wednesday. There should not be so much to do. I should not be so angry. These reviews should not take so long.”
With little flexibility for myself, I afforded even less consideration to the experiences of others. I was wrapped-up in a rather narcissistic, self-tortured vortex that I created of my own volition simply from the refusal to concede that my standards were impossible. I started to lash out at the very people who cared about me the most, my closest friends at work. My mutually exclusive expectations were colliding with the incontrovertible physics of reality, and in my over-functioning state, the more overwhelmed I felt, the more I piled onto my unending “to-do” list. My fangs were bared. My claws were out. Obviously, I was bearing an unequitable share of the burden. Just as always. Plainly, I was being unfairly treated. When others “failed” me, when I failed myself, Non-acceptance, Unwillingness, Defiance, Self-Righteousness, Blame, and Anger were there to pick up my shattered ego and carry me onward.
Recognizing that I was not behaving in a manner congruent with who I wanted to be, I only stumbled deeper into anger. Hating myself in my blindness, I knew that I was being unreasonable and irrational, but I couldn’t see clearly. I was blinded by the acrid smoke of my own emotions. This cycle continued for four tiresome days. It was tiresome for me, and tiresome for all those around me who endured my moodiness, irritability, and cartwheeling temper. Finally, my friend Steve had enough. I just finished saying something particularly biting and acerbic to him, who was my closest confidant at work, and turned on my heel to storm off. “Now hang on!” he called after me. “Come back here, and close the door!” I knew that I was in for it, and I deserved it, but rather than a severe reprimand, which really wasn’t his style, he met me with a patience that I didn’t deserve. “You’ve been pushing back a bit hard lately, don’t you think?” I hung my head in shame and embarrassment. He acknowledged the pressure that I was under but also observed of my behavior, “It’s a bit much, don’t you think? We’re your friends. We’re on your side!” Sulkily, I offered a shallow apology and slinked back to my office. Instead of barring my fangs, I was licking my wounds.
It was another 24 hours before I apologized in a more meaningful way. It was late on Friday, and I was headed off to yet another out of state conference the next morning. I didn’t want to get on a plane with the sour taste of my own bitterness still in my mouth, but when I went to find Steve before I left for the day, he was caught up in meetings with the administration across the hall. As I packed, I was still sucking on the acidic aftertaste that lingers with the knowledge that I inflicted pain on others in order to diffuse my own discomfort. Finally, I phoned Steve under the auspices of discussing some final bit of work business before I departed for a week. At last, after chatting for two minutes about that mundane subject, I meekly voiced an admission of my truly inexcusable conduct of the preceding days.
In the end, I was filled with gratitude and was left amazed and bewildered by the extremity of the grace I experienced. I did not deserve forgiveness. In recent memory, I could not recall carrying on so wretchedly for such a prolonged period of time, with such disdain for others. I treated them as means to my ends, stripping them of their inherent dignity and worth from my self-righteous, self-defensive perspective. My friend possessed the empathy to hold me accountable for my behavior without responding to me in kind. When I offered my somewhat useless apology, expressing that there were no justifications or explanations that could make what I did “all right,” he replied only with understanding and compassion. As I hung up the phone, I wracked my brain to recall a time I was ever treated so charitably. There was no further admonition, no lecture, no conveyance of a lesson, only pardon and peace. I started to cry. “Oh God,” I prayed, “Is this what it feels like when you forgive us?”
Over the course of the past day, I found myself pitched about on the brutal seas of a turbulent shame storm. When the unfortunately familiar physical sensations of burning in my face, muscle tension in my jaw, teeth clenching, and wincing began to crest, I was able to summon little desire to face whatever real or imagined iniquity lay at the eye of this hurricane. Who would want to turn into that torrent of painful emotions and cruel self-criticisms? Armed with a toolbox of distraction techniques and distress-tolerance skills, I weathered the intermittent surges of mental and emotional anguish with their characteristic accompanying bodily signs. I took a hot shower, caught up on some reading, and listened to an audiobook, all the while pushing back the recurring sense of mortification that told me I had done something terribly, abysmally, unforgivably atrocious.
A new acquaintance recently recommended a small book to me entitled God’s Tender Mercy: Reflections on Forgiveness by Sr. Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun. This morning, I woke feeling restored after my first decent night of sleep in recent memory, but I recognized a persisting vulnerability – the raw sting that hinted at shame lurking nearby. I reached for the little book on my bedside dresser. It was only seventy-seven 3×5 inch pages long in its entirety, and I was up to chapter two, “Forgive Us Our Sins: Forgive Yourself.” With one hand stroking my ginger cat, I began to read.
“And sometimes keeping the rules, I came to understand, can be more sinful than breaking them,” the wise sister wrote. I placed the book on my lap and contemplated my shame. It probably rose from my impression that I violated some inviolable social mores. It likely originated in the idea that I committed some act of “rule-breaking,” though I wasn’t exactly sure which of a million, little, conflicting and mutually exclusive rules I broke. My tendency toward rigid, black-and-white thinking and my old striving to be perfect provided a ready substrate for self-imposed agony. It was my choice to remain stuck in that miserable place, I realized. “If we admitted our arrogance, faced our dishonesties, named our weaknesses – at least to ourselves – we would be consumed with kindness,” I read on. What exactly was I refusing to face? I returned to the events of the previous afternoon and revisited precisely what occurred before this particular storm started churning. There, I found myself afraid to look foolish in front of others, holding myself to such an impossible standard of decorum that the specific expectations of behavior defied definition. I saw that I was terrified of doing or saying something “wrong,” and I was telling myself that a few, minor faux pas were unforgiveable. Imagining rejection and judgment, my cheeks flushed and I reflexively scrunched my face, bowing my head and squeezing my eyes tightly closed.
“The fact is that we are all made of the same thing: clay, the dust of the earth, the frail, fragile, shapeless thing from which we come and to which we will all return someday. We are all capable of the same things. Our only hope is that when we are all sitting somewhere bereft, exposed, outcast, humiliated and rejected by the rest of society, someone, somewhere will ‘reach out a hand and lift us up.’”
~ Sr. Joan Chittister, God’s Tender Mercy
What makes me so special that I think I should never make a mistake? I asked myself. It wasn’t a new question, but I required some gentle reminding. Who am I that when I make a mistake, I am excepted from compassion and understanding? It suddenly occurred to me that accepting compassion required a strong knowledge of self. It demanded true humility. To accept compassion, whether from myself or anyone else, would mean acknowledging my need for that compassion. Why would I need compassion unless I was deeply flawed? Facing those flaws, how could I deny that I deserved the gentle grace of forgiveness? After all, if I could not embrace my inner demons, then how could I ever hope to make enough peace with them that I might embrace others? How could I move beyond the past I could not change into the future I was called to live?
“Arrogance commits us to a community of one. There is nothing to be gained there. Don’t confuse weakness with sin. Most of us struggle with something we never quite conquer. It is precisely that struggle that can become the stuff of compassion with others.”
~ Sr. Joan Chittister, God’s Tender Mercy
Shame was trying to keep me isolated in my own ego, ruminating on the blunders of yesterday, and not in a healthy way that might lead to self-improvement, but in a self-castigating way designed only to inflict punishment and pain. Shame was telling me that I was unforgiveable, and beneath it all, shame was presuming that I was better than everyone around me, because I was fixing a standard for myself that was unreasonable for any human being. I peeled back all the layers, and staring up at me was my own, stubborn pride. It drove me to care so much about how others perceived and judged me that it sucked me into an unwinnable struggle to control the uncontrollable and secluded me in my own fear and self-defensiveness. With a great sigh, I accepted that this would not be the last time I would fall victim to the myth of self-reliance. I was refusing to allow for the graciousness of others. In my narrow, condemnatory, wounded little heart, I was denying that others might be more charitable than I was in overlooking my faults and reserving judgment. Could I admit that I was too caught up in my own self-importance, hand it all over to the God whose mercy surpasses His justice, and then simply let it go?
The driving winds of the tempest began to abate. The rain fell more softly. I started writing, and I discovered an odd gratitude. If I never went so far astray, upon what would I reflect? How would I grow?
“The only thing we can offer God of value is to give our love to people as unworthy of it as we are of God’s love.”
As a child, I learned very early and very well that I would never do anything well enough. My mother’s criticisms were strict and constant. If I drew a picture of a person with mitten-like hands, she asked me why my Crayola creation didn’t have all 10 fingers and 10 toes. For kindergarten class, our teacher asked us to cut out pictures from magazines beginning with each letter of the alphabet. Before I could begin to cut, my mom made directed me to use a ruler to outline my images in perfect boxes, sitting by my elbow to make sure I did it correctly. Only once I excised the photographs from the pages with surgical precision could I apply precisely 5 drops of glue to affix them to the paper assignment sheet. My brother and I always won ribbons in the reading and art contests at the public library. Such success was expected of us, and it was nearly guaranteed given our brilliance, talent, hard work, and my mother’s diligent, unwavering “guidance.”
As I grew up, I recognized that there was no sense in vacuuming my room if I didn’t move all the furniture and dust around the baseboards. I internalized that B’s were entirely unacceptable on report cards. An A- was tolerable in isolation, but it remained less than ideal. Handwriting that wasn’t as neat as a typewriter revealed laziness and weakness of character. If I wasn’t in the advanced placement math classes, then why bother showing up to school at all? Math was the subject where I struggled the most. Numbers, equations, and formulas left me feeling stupid and hopelessly incapable. In eighth grade, my teacher advised that I step down to “college prep,” which was level 3 out of 4. My mother was adamantly set against it, and I struggled through advanced math until I completed AP calculus as a high school senior. I earned an A, but I repeated calculus again over the course of two semesters in college. It was one of my first opportunities to choose for myself. I was also able to (finally!) quit the Spanish classes that I hated. When I was 11 years old and begged her to let me study French, my pleading fell on deaf ears. Spanish was more useful, she told me. When I was in college, I chose Latin.
My sense of worthlessness was cemented at a young age, and I came to believe that I would never be able to change. I would grow from an awkward, unattractive, isolated girl into an awkward, unattractive, isolated woman, and nobody would ever love me. It was who I was. It was who I was made to be. I hated myself. For most of my 32 years, I was a slave to my academic and professional success, straining to earn my self-worth through accomplishment. It wasn’t until I finally sought mental health treatment that I began to unravel my distorted thoughts and false reality. With the help of my cognitive behavioral therapist, I started to understand that my way of interpreting the world and my core beliefs were inaccurate. Long before I entered therapy, though, I found a new way to earn my worth that wasn’t tied to scholarship or job performance. I discovered that I was excellent at running. Over distances from a mile to 10K, I was fast! As I became more serious about running, I liked the changes that I observed in my body. I felt strong, sleek, and swift. Capable. Of course, I was never good enough at running to consider myself a runner. No matter how many races I entered, no matter how times I placed in my age group, I continued to worry that someone would uncover the truth about me – that I was an imposter. My training was too inconsistent, and my weekly mileage was too low. I was a phony.
In recovery from my eating disorder, I gave up on running. I was sidelined by injuries and illness nearly two years before I ever entered ED treatment, but through my therapy, I finally jettisoned the notion that my identity or worth came from something extrinsic. I fully expected that running would be an activity to which I would never return, and I found new ways to exercise in moderation and with balance. I distanced myself from work, allowing myself to be just average at my job for the first time, ever. Meeting expectations and requirements was sufficient. Needing time and space to explore what truly brought meaning to my life, I withdrew from anything extraneous. As I progressed in therapy, I gradually took on more professional and personal challenges. Without necessarily realizing what was happening, I slowly stretched beyond the careful boundaries I once erected to protect my nascent self. I set my professional aim a bit higher, comfortable that I knew how to right myself if the balanced tipped too far in one direction. I committed to a twice-monthly volunteer role at a local eating disorder treatment center. I booked a flight to Paris! Still, I continued to avoid running.
“Could you reclaim running and build a healthy relationship with it?” my therapist asked me. I wasn’t sure of the answer. Even walking for the sole purpose of walking stirred some inner resistance. Yet, I made a few, staggering starts. Last spring, I went out for a couple of walk-runs. Hesitantly, with great trepidation, I would walk for a few minutes, jog for 30 seconds, walk for a few minutes, and repeat. It never amounted to much, and I never built my intervals beyond a minute or so of running. I abandoned the effort until this autumn, when something inexplicable overcame me. Perhaps, it was simply the right time to try again, or perhaps it was something more.
“…October is a fine and dangerous season in America. It is dry and cool and the land is wild with red and gold and crimson, and all the lassitudes of August have seeped out of your blood, and you are full of ambition. It is a wonderful time to begin anything at all.”
~ Thomas Merton, Seven Storey Mountain
One day, I very matter-of-factly decided that with all of the biking and swimming and yoga and dashing about on one errand or the next, I was certainly strong. There could be no argument about it. I drove to the squishy, rubberized track a few miles from my house, felt the bounce under the soles of my shoes, and started walking. After a few minutes, my stride broke open, and I was jogging. My legs felt strange and unnatural as I summoned the ligaments and muscles to work in ways at once familiar and not. It was a long time ago that I made this particular demand of them. For three-quarters of a mile, they carried me on, and then, just as plainly, I walked again.
The brief trot remained my solitary attempt through the length of the holiday season. There were more pressing matters to divert my attention. However, as December came to a close, my sights fixed more steadily on Paris, and I resolved to make walking a top priority in preparation for my trip. “Do you think that emphasizing walking will help you to address running, as well?” my therapist asked. I nodded affirmatively, but deferred the additional challenge until after my vacation. It was too risky. I could get hurt.
Or… maybe, I wouldn’t. Maybe, I would be fine, especially if I added distance slowly and maintained the balance of my other activities. One afternoon, I laced up my shoes, but instead of setting off at a tourist pace around the neighborhood, I climbed a set of stairs to the short, indoor track circling the basketball courts and free weight machines at the gym where I work. “I just want to see,” I told myself. “I just want to see what it’s like. I just want to see how it feels.”
It felt fine! It felt like next to nothing at all! It felt very measured and plodding, and also hopeful and foundational. It felt like a comeback – the slowest comeback ever. I felt like the tortoise overtaking the hare. I went back again the next week, keeping my distance between half and two-thirds of a mile. Slow and steady. Bit by bit. Eventually.
Friday was sunny, and a few blinding rays sliced through the large, dirty windows each time I crossed the west side of the oval. On one straightway, I could gaze across the flat landscape to the smudgy line of trees on the distant horizon, and on the other, I could glance down at the pickup games of basketball and volleyball that were underway. I counted my breaths and let my arms swing loosely at my side, conscious of driving my elbows straight back with each stroke. Between breaths, I ticked off the laps. 1…2…3… The tiny track was 1/9 of a mile. 4…5…6… I surpassed my distance from the previous week. My core muscles were tight and contracted, and I could feel my glutes powering each step. I imagined my whole body cooperating to move me along. It was a well-nourished, well-rested body in good health, both mentally and physically. I never ran under those conditions before. I never ran without anything to prove. 7…8… It occurred to me that I was about to mark a new milestone, both literally and metaphorically. 9. I finished the lap and slowed to a walk, continuing to circle until my twitching legs relaxed. A little smile creased my face. I didn’t know what would come next, but I knew that I was already enough.
An extrovert trying to be an introvert to avoid being hurt… that was how my first therapist described me. Isolation and feelings of loneliness were always sources of pain for me. Exploring my need to be in the company of other people and embracing the discomfort and uncertainty inherent in the swampland of forging personal connections was a first beyond the entrenched cognitive-behavioral-emotional loops of my chronic depression. Reengaging with old friends and building new relationships were dramatic shifts outside of my comfort zone, and these efforts were challenging enough. At a time when I was also waging a pitched war for my life against binge eating disorder, the fact that many (perhaps most) social situations involved food only heightened the drama. My recovery from my depression and my eating disorder were too interdependent to be dissected apart. As I battled on, my friend Amelia was a close ally on both fronts. We fell into a routine of meeting up after work every few weeks for dinner, making our way through a circuit of the best local restaurants in our little area. Over seltzer with lime and decaf black coffee, we shared all the details of our lives, from the most mundane to the deepest and most heartfelt. Each meal was anticipated with delight as an opportunity to be genuine and authentic for a few hours. In the comfortable cocoon of merry conversation, I grew increasingly resilient as I coped with one menu and then the next.
In April, Amelia accepted an offer of a new position and relocated to a city five hours away. It was a long-expected move, and there was nothing sudden about it. I was excited for her, and I was prepared for the change, but there was a difference between predicting loneliness and then actually feeling it. Over the summer, I continued to travel frequently, remained involved in all of my meaningful activities, and maintained my connections with all of my long-distance friends. Yet… I spent much of my time alone. It didn’t always feel like loneliness. I remained connected and I didn’t dwell in any sense of isolation or entertain self-pity. However, every once in a while, I felt the definitive absence of my friends. At times, my therapist and I spoke about the subject, but we never arrived at any useful conclusions. I continued to participate in yoga, I lingered after mass each Sunday to chat with my casual acquaintances from my parish, and, every so often, I went out to lunch with some of my coworkers. None of those fleeting connections filled the empty space in my heart that longed for a kindred spirit.
It was a Friday afternoon a few weeks ago, and I was leaving work in just such a state. I was at the nadir of a several-day funk, and I was not looking forward to a solitary weekend. My mood was low and my anxiety was piqued, triggered by automatic, alarming, all-or-nothing type thoughts about an upcoming professional conference and all the logistics of another trip. To an entirely new city. Alone.
My phone buzzed, and a lengthy text message popped onto the screen. It was Amelia! “Pete and I are headed your way for the weekend! There’s a cycling convention in town. I know it’s last minute, but we’re going out for dinner at Giovanni’s on Saturday night if you want to come. Let me know!” Amelia was returning at precisely the moment it seemed that I needed her most! My heart perked, but my head reeled at the name of the restaurant. Giovanni’s was decidedly unsafe.
“Lord, you have probed me, you know me: / you know when I sit and stand; / you understand my thoughts from afar. / You sift through my travels and my rest; / with all my ways you are familiar. / Even before a word is on my tongue, / Lord, you know it all. / You formed my inmost being; / You knit me in my mother’s womb. / My very self you know.”
~ Psalm 139:1b-4,13,14b
Competing ideas zipped into my consciousness. “No,” was a prominent voice. “No” to the menu, “no” to the restaurant, and “no” to everything that they both represented to me. Giovanni’s exemplified everything that I found repugnant in American food culture. It was about as far from authentically Italian as one could possibly find. The fare was entirely Midwestern American, featuring pasta with a side of bread, served with meatballs, sausage, salami, and pepperoni, heavily doused with cheese, cream sauces, and more cheese, and served with a garnish of tomato sauce. The three salads on the menu consisted mainly of iceberg lettuce, croutons, and, you guessed it, more cheese. The only entrée that included a vegetable was fried eggplant parmesan. There weren’t even any vegetable sides offered.
Against these objections, I also heard myself stating a decisive, “Yes.” My memory of a recent appointment with my dietician resonated, and I couldn’t escape the echoed repetitions of Kelly’s voice, “You may not skip social things because of food.” I was grateful for her clear, direct manner, which left little room for quibbling. “Yes” to Kelly, “yes” to Amelia, and “yes” to connection, friendship, and wholeheartedness. I couldn’t conceive how I would manage the menu, but there was little utility in obsessing over it. Reading and rereading the descriptions of the unappealing choices would not alter them or make them more acceptable. Memorizing every deplorable detail would only make me more anxious. I admitted to myself that there were no safe choices; I replied to Amelia that I was not in the least bit comfortable with the restaurant; and I expressed my tremendous joy at the prospect of seeing her again, committing myself, for better or worse, to whatever this dinner entailed. Decision made, I settled into waiting with a combination of exuberance and resigned acceptance.
As afternoon succeeded morning on Saturday, a familiar exchange revolved through my head. Yes/no. Excitement/acceptance. Tranquility/anxiety. Amelia and Pete were at their cycling convention, and I awaited their word on a dinner time. It wasn’t until 3:30pm that I heard from them. Could I meet at the restaurant in two hours? Typically, 5:30pm would be “way too early” for me to eat, especially given the typical later timing of my weekend lunch. However, on this particular Saturday, I was grateful that the short notice left me little interval for pre-planning, advance calculations, or ruminations. Still in yoga tights and looking a teensy bit too disheveled for a sit-down meal, even at the most casual of places like Giovanni’s, my main concern was making myself presentable and getting across town in under 120 minutes.
When I arrived (only 10 minutes late – which is just on time for me!), I was so flooded with the excitement of seeing my beloved friend that I could barely focus on anything else. It was impossible to read a menu and survey all the sights and sounds of my new environment while maintaining the bubbling flow of conversation that gushed forth the instant Amelia and I reunited. I tripped my way to the table, so distracted I was peering over my shoulder in an attempt to keep her in sight, as words tumbled out in all directions from both sides. It was after the waitress paused at our table for the third time to take our orders that I concluded it was time to settle into dedicated concentration for the task at hand – to hobble together some sort of manageable compromise from a truly abysmal list of choices.
“It is just one day.”
“It is just one meal.”
“It is not going to kill me.”
“I can do this.”
When the pleasant waitress returned once more, I smiled sweetly and asked innocently, “Do you have any side vegetable dishes?” I fully expected her negative answer, but I wasn’t yet discouraged or dissuaded. “Do you have any vegetables?” I asked in my most saccharine way. Like, at all? Like, in the entire restaurant? Like, could you go to the grocery store and buy me a carrot?
She twisted one corner of her mouth and scrunched her nose as if she was racking her brain. “You know what, let me check,” she responded kindly. I tried not to be too appalled that it seemed like such a bizarre, foreign idea that a patron would want to eat a vegetable with her dinner. A few moments later, she returned triumphantly with the answer: there were spinach and red peppers in the kitchen.
“Perfect!” I internally rejoiced. I asked her if it would be too much trouble to steam some spinach for me. She offered to sauté it. I asked her to sauté it lightly, ordered the grilled chicken with pasta and pesto, and said a little prayer under my breath that my meal wouldn’t arrive at the table swimming in oil. “It’s out of my control now,” I told myself as I settled back into the rhythm of conversation, happy, content, acquiescent, pleased, relaxed, and willing.
“It is just one day.”
“It is just one meal.”
“It is not going to kill me.”
“I can do this.”
It would be a lie if I denied that I was unconcerned about gaining weight. Those thoughts were present. I was upset and disturbed by the food selection and by the relationships with food and eating behaviors reflected around me. However, in a moment when I was faced with a choice to isolate within the safe, protective shell of my eating disorder or turn all of my self-protective instincts upside down, I committed to the uncertain path, and I forged ahead without wavering. It felt risky, it felt reckless, and it felt real. In a less-than-ideal situation, I did better than cope. It felt like progress.
“I am not absent-minded. It is the presence of the mind that makes me unaware of everything else.”
~ G.K. Chesterton
In my imagination, there is an ideal of what it would mean to be perfectly mindful. There is a notion, a concept, of always being in the present – fully aware of what is going on around me, fully conscious, awake, and attentive to my external environment and my internal thoughts and emotions. My therapist tries to tell me that to be always mindful would not be mindful, but that makes little sense to me. As I gradually make my way through my book on mindful self-compassion, I draw encouragement from learning that the moment we become aware that we are not being mindful, we become mindful. (I know that I’ve been writing about this same book for months. I’m a slow reader, okay! It also doesn’t help that I jump from one book to another, then onto a third, then back to the first).
One afternoon, last weekend, I set out for an autumn bike ride along the paved trails near my house.
The fall is one of my favorite seasons, and it always stirs up some very strong memories and emotions. They swirl together fluidly, making it impossible to follow a linear ribbon of thought or recollection. Light and dark, faces and names, places and ideas, happiness, joy, gratitude, nostalgia, pain, loss, guilt, delight, sorrow, shame, laughter, tears… they all mix together like so many disparate ingredients poured into one giant bowl. Flour, sugar, eggs, and milk form a smooth batter, never to be constituent parts again, but richer for their joining.
My mind was fluttering with activity as I pedaled along the tree-lined paths, legs pumping, lungs heaving, and heart nearly bursting with all the glory of that autumn afternoon. When I returned to my apartment, I was in danger of falling into self-criticism for being so mindless. Though I did notice the sparkling rays of the setting sun, the fresh current of the air, and the smell of damp earth, I could not deny that I was largely preoccupied during my ride. As I stretched my sore quads, I turned on the television to a biopic of G.K. Chesterton. Not knowing much about this British author, I continued to watch, and I found myself presented with the above quote. It gave me pause for deeper consideration.
Perhaps there is more to this practice of mindfulness than I am allowing.
“Well, I still need to take a shower, and I need to wash and blow-dry my hair…” confessed Rachel. I glanced at the clock on the car dash. It was 11am on a Sunday morning, and I was home in Connecticut for a visit. As I wound my way over back roads to the nearby mall to find a Star Wars-themed gift for one of my favorite four-going-on-five year olds, I was also attempting to make plans with my oldest friend. A nearby thrift store was holding a 50% off Labor Day Weekend sale, and she was itching to rummage through its racks. I wanted to scope out the fall selections at one of my favorite clothing shops. In my bag, I was toting a lone granola bar for my mid-morning snack, but that would quickly be eaten. Soon, the lunch hour would be upon us…
“Take whatever time you need!” I cheerfully told her. “We’ll figure something out!” We arranged to meet at a convenient bookstore. Immediately, I ended the call and dialed my sister-in-law. “Quick! What are some restaurant options near Evergreen where they might serve something we would eat?!”
My parents’ community, like most American suburbs, is dotted with fast-food take-out joints, pizza dives, Chinese restaurants, and a plethora of Burger Kings, McDonalds, Wendy’s, Starbucks, Olive Gardens, Red Robbins, and the like. Part of my eating disorder recovery is mindful eating – paying close attention to flavor, texture, and quality of food, determining my actual likes and dislikes, and choosing foods that are appealing to my appetite and senses, rather than limiting myself to foods that I deem “good” or “bad” based on my very narrow and rigidly defined laws about healthiness (or lack thereof). Some people might label me a snob, but I prefer to see myself as someone who is becoming more aware of how delightful it can be to enjoy an entire dining experience, and I admittedly remain a bit inflexible around the issue of compromising.
Unfortunately, after living away for nearly fifteen years, I am not ready with a list of interesting dining options in the event of impromptu meals out. My sis is a great support when it comes to such challenges. She does not have an eating disorder, but we have somewhat similar culinary preferences – we both favor restaurants with kitchens where a chef prepares your dish from fresh ingredients when you order it, and we are keen on menus offering plentiful choices that aren’t too heavy, fried, creamy, dense, or drowning in sauce. I like my food to be savory and simple, with vegetable sides.
Within a few minutes, I was furnished with the names of three places that were close at hand to the shops. A quick flip of my thumb along the screen of my iPhone brought up their menus, and a casual glance reassured me that I was, indeed, safe. I was able to enjoy a worry-free afternoon with Rachel, without the intrusive distraction of ruminative, anxious thoughts about how I was going to satisfy my lunch needs.
When we finally paused to eat, it wasn’t difficult to settle on the place. The weather was balmy and blissful, and we chose the restaurant with the best outdoor seating. We were led to a table straight away, and our server greeted us with a charming and friendly introduction. My eye fell immediately upon the beet salad, one of my favorite sides. Deciding what to pair it with was a bit more difficult. “Don’t worry,” winked our waiter mischievously. “I won’t let you order an unreasonable amount of food.” He sounded unconvincing.
There were some very reassuring options on the menu, which featured a range of selections from a basic turkey sandwich, to a plain steak with sides, to a light piece of chicken with rice or mashed potatoes and a vegetable. Yet, there were many more interesting descriptions that ignited my curiosity. “What is the Mediterranean chicken with risotto like?” I politely inquired. “Is it heavy? Is it a large portion?” He admitted that it was a bit larger, but my tastebuds were watering. Tomatoes, artichokes, and spinach with pesto, chicken, and… risotto… I decided I would try it. With my beet salad to help fill me up, I could plan to take part of it home for another meal, and if it was unappetizing, it wouldn’t be a total disaster.
Risotto. The last time I could remember eating risotto was nearly six years ago, just as my eating disorder was beginning to manifest. I didn’t exactly recall what it was like, but I remembered the dish being pleasant. “It’s like rice,” I thought. “I eat rice. Rice is ok.” In my mind, the word “Mediterranean” meant “lighter, with olive oil.” I wasn’t prepared for the thick cream sauce that stared back at me when the deliciously aromatic plate was set on the table.
Commenting on the creaminess to Rachel, she gave me a, “Well, yeah. It’s risotto!” response, as if to say, “Duh! What did you think you were ordering?” Remarkably, I didn’t feel my tight knot of anxiety twist in my chest. All I felt was the cool breeze and the fresh air of the sunny afternoon. I took a bite of the chicken, and acknowledged that it tasted good. After devouring the rest of my beets, goat cheese, and arugala, I slowly and methodically explored my entrée. It was good. I could distinguish all of the flavors as I carefully nibbled away at the spinach, tomatoes, artichokes, and chicken. I dabbed the meat in the pesto that ringed the plate. I took tiny bites of the risotto, appreciating the texture and the taste. An errant thought about weight gain flitted across my brain, but I paid little attention to it. Another flutter of an idea about needing to exercise to work off this indulgence passed along without causing any significant distress. When I was at just the right fullness, I put my fork down, and I asked for a box.
As I drove home that afternoon, I puzzled over what transpired during lunch. It seemed like a blip or an anomaly. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. For an hour or so, I relaxed my rules and my firm grasp of control. It occurred to me that to continue my progress in recovery and to fully live my life, I might need to continue practicing this mindful surrendering.
I’m not sure I’m entirely comfortable with this looseness, this fluidity, this unguardedness. I trust my meal plan. I don’t trust myself. “What if mindful eating makes me fat?” I worry… … … What if it doesn’t?
According to science, true perpetual motion is not possible. Those physicists at MIT never met me…
When I was in college, I was in awe of my friends who could sit in near cataplexy for hours upon hours, deep in focused concentration, with towers of books, sheaves of paper, assortments of pencils, pens, and colorful highlighters, and discarded coffee cups piled about them. There were a multitude of cozy, quiet, beautiful little nooks and crannies across our centuries-old campus where a person could nestle away for days of endless study. Yet, within an hour or so of burrowing down into the catacombs of the library stacks or snuggling up beside the massive fireplace in the periodicals room, a stirring would begin to creep through my body. It declared to me, “You’re a failure, you can’t hack it, you’re not as good as the rest, and there is clearly and obviously something abnormal about you, because you can’t sit still for two bloody hours! For crying out loud! GET BACK TO WORK!”
As the clock on the wall continued its tortuous march, the thoughts in my head continued their annoying chatter, filling my mind with fantasies of restroom breaks, the weather, chocolate covered pretzels from the lobby shop in the student center, friends from home, shopping, movies that I loved, movies that I wanted to see, the parties that I wasn’t attending and the life that I wasn’t living while I was slaving over my textbooks day after day, all of my shortcomings and failures, the birds outside the window, my next vacation, anxieties about the future, regrets about the past, curiosities about what every person I knew was doing at that very moment, coupled with assumptions that they were all thriving, self-criticism of my sloppy appearance in my standard study-garb of t-shirt and sweatpants… This cyclic, often distorted stream of consciousness was accompanied by a twitchy, restless energy. There was a kinetic force that just wanted to be released. “Make it go away!” was the subconscious message I sent myself, though my executive center screamed, “Everyone else is working hard! What is wrong with you? Why can’t you sit still?!” (Self-compassion was never one of my strengths.)
If you knew Alice or Margie, you could ask them what it was like to live with me during final exam week. When there was no other outlet for that nervous, impatient, distressing dynamism that flooded my body and irritated my brain, I took up the habit of pacing the countertop of our kitchen peninsula. Sometimes, I stood on tables while I recited biochemical reactions from memory or they quizzed me from my flashcards of Latin declensions. Food offered a release, a distraction, an escape, and a comfort. Everyone needed to eat. I awaited mealtimes with apprehensive eagerness, because they provided a legitimized reason to leave my desk for an hour or so. Self-soothing and escaping difficult emotions by eating when I was not hungry or over-eating were maladaptive coping skills that I already carried with me from my earliest childhood.
A few weeks ago, I was tucked into a corner of my therapist’s couch, recounting a more recent experience of that same intense urgency, which arose during a stressful and busy time at work. When my therapist asked me to describe what I meant, I was ready with a catalog of adjectives. Skittery, jittery, tense, and intense. Fluttery, high-strung, and hyperactive. Agitated, frenzied, and disquieted. Discombobulated. She asked me if this state was always necessarily negative, and her question left me confused. Clearly, I was not using my words effectually. Of course it was negative! When I was caught up in this crazy spiral, I felt like my heart might explode, like electricity was running through my body, like I was literally a live-wire. It was confusing, disorienting, uncomfortable, and distressing, and the result was that I became inefficient and ineffective. All I could think about was making it stop and turning it off. Without binging, there was no physical release. I was left to tolerate the intolerable with coping skills like deep breathing, which felt like whispering into a tornado.
My therapist pressed a bit further, challenging my negative associations. Where did I learn that feeling hyperactive, confused, disoriented, and electric were bad? Could those same adjectives also describe excitement? What about exuberance, joy, enthusiasm, andpositive energy? Then, she suggested something else that I wasn’t ready to hear. What if I was born with a more restless temperament? What if I simply wasn’t created to sit still for eight or ten hours at a stretch? After decades of comparing myself to others, could I accept myself as I was? What if the fact that I was not the sort to sit still and quiet for very long didn’t mean that I was broken, or a failure, or dysfunctional, or bad, or deficient, or weak-willed?
Oh, to know peace and rest in my body and my mind! To simply stop moving and thinking! How I yearn for such stasis! To be able to pass an afternoon with reading, meditation, writing, drawing, or painting seems like it would be bliss, but within fifteen minutes (sometimes more, sometimes less) of sitting down, I am up again. Maybe my rejection of my restlessness and my easy distractibility is what amplifies the intolerability of the urge to move. I attempt to fix the “problem” by eliminating every possible distraction before I try to find my calm, but the chores never end, and the to-do list only grows longer.
We spoke about ways that I might find more of a forgiving cadence in my day by building in more frequent, shorter breaks, interspersed with shorter periods of work. Perhaps the combination of quietness and movement is what I need, finding a rhythmic flow between work and restorative reflection. My current patterns will be hard to break, but I am hopeful, because I see the potential for more peace and less burnout. With repeated effort, this could be another step toward relaxing my rigid standards and reducing my self-criticism. Perhaps one of the reasons I enjoy yoga so much is the unity of movement and stillness. Now, if I could only bring my practice off of the mat and into my life.
Every Thursday evening, whenever I’m in town and not traveling, I attend a therapy group for people who suffer from eating disorders and distorted body image. Though I am surrounded by the support and love of innumerable family, friends, colleagues, and caring professionals, something unnerving and soul-wrenching happens when I am among others who know firsthand what it is like to live with this illness. When they speak, it is as if their words are my own. To know that I am not alone because my family and friends are always with me is comforting. But, to know that I am not alone because there are other people who understand… that is heart-breaking, mind-bending, and ultimately, healing. I am not so deranged that another human being can’t comprehend the parts of me that are most disturbed and irrational.
At the present moment, there are eight of us. Each of us is in a different place along our journeys. Some are actively working on their recovery. Some are still in the pre-contemplative or contemplative stages of change. To each other, we bring our struggles, daily experiences, and inner turmoil. Though the specific symptoms and behaviors of our eating disorders differ, a degree of body dysmorphia is something that we all share in common. It’s not that any of us suffer from body dysmorphic disorder, but when we look in the mirror, our brains have a way of distorting the image.
Within the safety of this familiar, little band, I stumbled into a startling discovery last week. As I listened quietly, one after another of these women, my friends, expressed their deep loathing of their bodies. It was painful to hear, and I was filled with empathy and sorrow. Yet, another emotion gripped me, which could best be described as excited gratitude. The meeting was drawing to a close. Unable to contain this perplexingly intense sensation, I wrapped my arms around myself squeezing my eyes tightly shut. An impish grin broke across my face, and I lifted my feet off the floor, stretching my legs out directly in front of me energetically as I declared, “I love my body!”
Part of me felt guilt for exhibiting such jubilation in the midst of so much suffering, but I couldn’t let the last word of that night be one of disparagement. As we departed, I meditated more deeply on these thoughts that were suddenly springing up inside of me. What I found was that…
I love the face that peers at me from the tiny square of bathroom mirror. A bit of makeup artfully conceals the acne scars and the red blotches. A little blush lights up my pale, monochromatic cheeks. I love my sparkling, hazel eyes, which appear to change shades depending on the color of the clothes I wear. I love my straight, pearly teeth and my even smile. My parents paid a lot of money in orthodontists’ bills so that I could share this smile with the world! I love my chin, which doesn’t recede and doesn’t protrude, but is perfect for my face. Just like my nose. I love my thick, auburn hair, the fineness of each strand, and its irremediable straightness.
I love being short! I fit into so many small places and tight spaces. It doesn’t even bother me that I can never reach the tops of high shelves. That’s why there are stools and tall people in the world. I love my petite hands and the writing bump on my right third finger. I love my feet and all the callouses that cover them. They tell the story of my life. After all the miles, all the experiences, all the long days and long nights of thankless work, the high and low adventures, and all the injuries, my feet remind me that I am resilient. And they remind me that I am not invincible. They invite me to take care of myself and to rest when I need it. My feet remind me to push my boundaries, and to know my limits. They remind me to accept what is, and to do what is needed. Oh, do I love my feet!
There are a few aspects of my body that I am learning to simply accept, like the chunk that is missing from my left eyebrow where I underwent a skin biopsy, and the unsightly acne that still peppers my face, chest, and back, even in my 30’s. I accept my aches and pains, my knotted muscles, and my chronic TMJ. Ultimately, I accept that my body is changing. The lines of my face are creeping and multiplying, their creases deepening. Here and there, I catch the glimmer of a silver strand of hair. The scattered, purple, spider veins that are barely visible on my thighs will one day spread into a dark, violaceous network to cover my legs, just like all the other women in my family. My weight may even (gasp) fluctuate. That last one is still the hardest for me to accept, yet it is the truth, and it is natural. It is just part of this experience of living. Because, in the final equation, my body serves a purpose. It is the temple of my soul. It is the vessel that carries me through this world. It enables me to do a great many things, though I remind myself that one day, it will fail. My faith tells me that I am wonderfully made. My faith also tells me not to be overly attached to my body, at least not as it is today, and not to idealize any physical standard of perfection. There is more to life, and death, and the life to come than can be contained in this organic being.
Perhaps my brain is changing, too. Perhaps, I’m rewiring, making new and different connections, overwriting the old, automatic, maladaptive signaling pathways. How did I move from waging a war of submission against my body to harboring this intense desire to hug myself in a giant, bearlike embrace? When did this shift happen? I’m not sure, but I like these feelings.
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.
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.
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!”
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. ❤