Every Little Step

Featured Image:  “Early morning riser,” © Vincent Mumar (own work), Sep 2011. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

“Sensations are not symptoms,” I tell myself as I place one blue-sneakered foot tentatively onto the concrete pavement. The words of my first psychiatrist return to me, though I can’t remember his precise phrasing. “How many times will you tell yourself you can’t do it before you do?

“Anxiety and fear do not provide solace for our pain but aggravate it, leading us to a kind of breakdown in courage and strength because it appears that our pain has no possible remedy.”

~ St. Francis de Sales

On this blog, though I recount forthrightly my struggles with depression and anxiety and I unabashedly discuss my recovery from binge eating disorder, there remain one or two subjects so steeped in self-judgment and shame that I continue to carefully avoid them. These issues are important parts of my identity, and I process them in-depth with my dietician, my therapist, and in my personal writing. Otherwise, I keep the stories to myself, with the persistent belief that, “There are some things that people just won’t understand.” The way that my mind processes thought through physiologic responses in my body is one of those topics that I eschew. It’s hard to describe the stress-induced symptoms that I can develop. They aren’t manifestations of an overactive imagination or an overwrought psyche, and I don’t suffer from what is commonly characterized (and stigmatized) as “psychosomatic” illness. Over-worked neurons send misdirecting signals into the muscles of my body, which contract irregularly, and – voila! – a knot in my shoulder or in my stomach, a rushed trip to the restroom, or a flare-up of an old tendinitis. Did you ever have a lump in your throat, tightness in your chest, or butterflies in your stomach when you were particularly anxious about something? In some people, that mind-body connection is a little over-developed. Different people may experience this process in a manner of ways, but for me, it is just that easy… and complicated.

My response to stress through these non-specific physical manifestations didn’t emerge out of nowhere. When I was in sixth grade, I was the target of some fairly serious bullying. (Those were the days before cell phones and social media. I can’t even fathom what children go through today.) By the end of the year, I was suffering from such frequent stomachaches and nausea that my pediatrician was convinced I was lactose intolerant. When all the tests returned with normal results, the symptoms eventually resolved. I was always a sensitive child and easily prone to worry. As I transitioned from elementary to middle school, the dysthymic depression that would persist for the next 20 years settled more concretely upon me.  I began to experience intermittent knee pains, which continued off and on throughout high school and college. I was diagnosed with patellofemoral syndrome, attributed to soccer and tennis. Before every tennis match, I lined up by the athletic trainer’s office so that he could tape my knees, but my ruminations about the sensation of pain only exacerbated and amplified the subjective experience. After college, I found my stride – literally and figuratively – becoming a short-distance runner and entering races. I completely forgot about my history of patellofemoral syndrome, and then I developed my first significant injury of adulthood. It was the fear more than the pain from the shin splints and possible stress fracture (I couldn’t afford the diagnostic test) that caused my depression and anxiety to spike. My thoughts lingered obsessively over my injury. In my fear and anticipation of pain, I could interpret almost any physical sensation in my legs as “hurt,” and my recovery extended beyond the expected six weeks into the range of six months. Eventually, when my bewildered doctor told me, “Either you are going to run, or you aren’t,” I screwed up my courage and forced one foot in front of the other. My mind reeled, but there wasn’t any inflammation in my extremities. When I forced my way through my dread and apprehension, both the emotions and their physical manifestations slowly melted away into… normalcy.

It wasn’t until nearly five years later, while I was recovering from my gastrointestinal illness and plantar fasciitis, that my therapist and I started addressing the role that my thought process was playing in my over-interpretation of physical stimuli. Anytime I noticed the slightest suggestion of a feeling in the area of my abdomen, I began to focus all of my attention on my stomach. As I over-analyzed every gurgle and squelch, I descended into self-blame, and my head swam with alarming and catastrophic thoughts. “Am I relapsing again? What did I do? I must have done something to cause it! What should I do? What if I really am getting sick again?” While my mood tanked, my stomach twisted into aching knots. At the same time that I was recovering from the terrible trauma of that prolonged GI disease, I was also in physical and emotional agony over a lingering case of plantar fasciitis, which made it difficult to enjoy many of the activities I once loved. The onset of the injury occurred during the peak of the colitis, at a time when I was weakened, malnourished, and desperately depressed. When my therapist and I discussed this history, I began to see how my anxiety and perseverations were understandable. It was so obvious when it was all laid out as if we were discussing the life of some stranger. Of course, I would be hyper-vigilant to any cues that might alert me to impending danger from these two conditions which, together, upended my entire existence! With my therapist’s coaching, I practiced responding to my pain and my fear with acceptance, gentleness, and self-compassion. “There’s that pain again,” I acknowledged. “There’s my brain worrying that something is wrong. But nothing is wrong, and I am ok.” As I gently closed my eyes and relaxed the little muscles of my jaw, I repeated to myself, “Deep breath. Ground myself in the breath. Ground myself in anything other than my stomach or my feet.”

Turning to principles of operant conditioning, I trained myself to act opposite my emotions. Rather than modifying my behavior to “protect myself” from further exacerbating the “pain,” I did exactly what I was afraid to do, within what a wise mind might consider moderate and safe. Instead of staying home from a bike ride, I would set out for a gentle cycle around the block, just to stretch my legs and prove to myself that I was capable of spending 10 or 15 minutes on a bicycle without hurting myself or causing some sort of massive GI upheaval. Instead of sitting on the couch and nursing my poor feet, lamenting my “disability,” I would tell myself softly that walking through the grocery store was not enough to trigger any sort of severe injury from which recovery was impossible, and off I went, frequently deep-breathing the whole way along while squinting my eyes tight and forcefully redirecting my attention again and again to anything other than the focus of my worry.

paralyzed
200.365 paralyzed by the same old antics,” © ashley rose (own work), Jan 2010. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

“The best way out is always through.”

~ Robert Frost

During these days of rewiring my mind-body connection, I developed several mantras:  “Just because I feel pain does not mean I am injured. // Sensitivity is not the same as pain. // There is no way that this moderate level of (x,y,z) activity is causing permanent damage. // In the whole long course of my life, this will not last forever! I am ok, and I am going to be ok. // All of this is going to work out. // No matter what happens, God has a plan for my life.” I also expanded the vocabulary that I used to describe my physical sensations. From one word, “pain,” my lexicon multiplied to include pressure, twinge, niggle, rub, ache, sting, tenderness, smarting, soreness, prickle, tingle, pinch, throb, burn, and irritation. Sometimes, there was still no word that fit. “I just feel it. It’s just there,” I would tell myself. Just because I was aware of the presence of my feet, did not mean that there was anything amiss.

“Don’t trouble yourself. God didn’t make us to abandon us.”

~ Michelangelo

So… why am I now reflecting on a desensitization process that I undertook almost two years ago? Well, I still develop physiologic responses to stress, and I still rely on the same tools and skills to redirect the automatic thoughts that alarm my mind with fears that my body isn’t right. With my trip to Paris quickly approaching, I am discovering that there is much more to this jumble than I originally perceived. There are some fearsome monsters still slumbering peacefully in a dark corner of my closet. Until recently, I didn’t even know they were there. Now, they are yawning wide, stretching their claws after their long hibernation, and showing their fangs. They are knocking on the door, and I am timidly letting them into the room.

The truth is, by God’s grace I am blessedly able-bodied, and I always enjoyed a very active lifestyle. I grew up running, jumping, and playing. At parties, I loved to dance! I lived in New York City and Washington, DC and constantly walked everywhere. Until a couple years ago, my job was incredibly active, and I was on my feet for 12 to 16 hours a day. Where did she go, that girl who used to clomp and shuffle and skip and scurry? She never gave her feet much of a thought. “This trip is going to be good for you on many levels,” my therapist predicted during our most recent session. She was referring to the myriad ways I was finding myself hurtled out of my comfort zone. Her underlying assumption seemed to be that I would emerge intact and healthy from my visits with the beasties in the closet. She foresaw us all pleasantly sipping thé and eating gateau at some Parisian sidewalk café in May. I reminded her that there were only four months until my departure – not much time to rehabilitate myself. “And here I was thinking, ‘Wow, we have four whole months! Think of all we can do in that amount of time!’” she replied.

Ironically, it was my mother who offered me the centering words of reassurance that anchored me in acceptance and self-compassion. “If it hurts to walk, just sit down,” she spoke to me over the phone. I was so overwhelmed by how much walking I would have to do after I landed in Paris, that I never stopped to consider I didn’t actually have to do any of it. “There will be so many places to sit! There will be places to sit everywhere! You don’t have to go everywhere and see everything. Just do what you can, and then take a break.” I was a little stunned that these words of balance and wisdom were coming from the same driven woman who instilled my perfectionistic, neurotic restlessness in me. This was the bold, fearless mother whose sense of adventure and curiosity could never be dissuaded until she explored every nook and cranny of every city, street, neighborhood, beach, field, house, museum, shop, or parking lot into which she ever stepped foot. She never saw a “Do Not Enter” sign that applied to her. As I contemplated her message, I remembered that she was also the same one who gently told me, “Let go of your pride,” when I blushed with shame as I maneuvered a motorized scooter through Disney World two years ago. In both instances, she reminded me that it was ok to be flexible, that I was more than I imagined myself to be, and that in the acceptance of reality, there was nothing to fear.

“If we are intended for great ends, we are called to great hazards.”

~ Blessed John Henry Newman

“Do what you can. It’s going to be ok.” Both feet are planted on the sidewalk now. I close the front door behind me, turn the key, and drop the little brass ring into my jacket pocket. Unravelling a set of earbuds, I jam them into my ears, wedging them in extra-securely. I thumb through my music and hit the “shuffle” button on the same playlist that comforted me during those early days of transition after my partial hospitalization discharge. Pat Benatar blasts into my tympanic membranes, reverberating down my auditory canals into my brain, drowning out any other thoughts. Off go my feet – one, two, one, two – and I consciously slow them as I count my inhales and exhales. Clenching my fists and singing softly along with the lyrics, I turn the corner, and I lose sight of the house behind me. “My body can do this! My body wants to do this,” I think. “It is my mind that is weak.” At the end of the next street, I turn back. The loop is about a mile, all-told, and I finish it in about 30 minutes. I am ok. “It’s going to be ok.”

Backpacker in Cairns
Backpacker in Cairns,” © Jo Christian Oterhals (own work), Mar 2010. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

~ J.R.R. Tolkein, The Lord of the Rings

These Ordinary Days

Featured Image: “Winter Forest,” © Ya To (own work), Feb 2015. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.”

~ Socrates

On January 9th, a rather unremarkable Monday, the Catholic Church in the United States commemorated the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, and with it came the official conclusion of the Christmas season. Though my local Barnes and Noble began selling pink and red heart-shaped boxes of chocolates on December 26th, I was still lighting pine-scented candles and singing “Joy to the World” all through the first week of the new year. However, after enjoying the full twelve days of Christmas (plus a few), I felt ready to let go of the carols and the holiday films on TV. The tips of the evergreen boughs twisted into a wreath on my front door were starting to turn a bit ochre. It was time to move on.

In past years, the post-holiday transition would trigger a period of depressed mood with fair reliability. Yet, as I swapped out the playlists that streamed in the background while my tea kettle came to a boil on January 10th, I didn’t feel a hint of melancholy. Was my readiness for change related to my more modest and restrained decorating? Without a tree or lights, the thought of putting away the detritus of Christmas past was not nearly so overwhelming. Did my willing mood reflect more realistic and less idealistic expectations for Christmas 2016? Whatever the reason, I felt acceptance and peace with the onward flow of time. I was ready for a fresh start to a new, less ornate season.

In the liturgical calendar, we are entering Ordinary Time. The feasts are over, the celebrations complete. It is the beginning of the longest season of the year. These days may not be illustrious or renowned, but they are arguably the most important. This is where we labor at life. It is when the gifts are packed away and the magi go home that the real work begins. Every day, we face innumerable choices, and how we respond to the circumstances of these ordinary times defines who we are and the world we live in. It is during the course of these ordinary days that our love and compassion matures… or it doesn’t. Our values are practiced… or they aren’t. It is in this ordinary time that we become what we repeatedly do. This is where we cultivate the simple joys of the everyday. It is where we learn to appreciate the beauty of the sublime. We either stop to notice… or we don’t. We train ourselves to count our daily gratitudes and graces… or not. It is imperfect. It is hard. It is complicated. It is delightful. It is boring. It is awe-inspiring. It is exhausting. It is perplexing. It is so many things, but one thing is certain. This is the time of growing.

And so, once more, it begins.

“There isn’t any such thing as an ordinary life.”

~ L.M. Montgomery, Emily Climbs

snow
Snow,” © Andy Walker (own work), Jan 2013. CC BY-ND 2.0. (license)

Into a New Year

Featured Image: “untitled (New Year’s Day),” © Tilman Köneke (own work), Jan 2016. CC BY 2.0. (license)

“At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known. So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

~ 1 Corinthians 13:12-13

In the still, gray quiet of predawn on this January 1st, I turned off the background music which usually entertains me as I eat my breakfast, and I sat in silence. Gradually, my senses began to perceive the subtlety surrounding me. A candle flickered and crackled in a jar on the table, releasing just a hint of evergreen fragrance into the air. Across the living room, the blinds were drawn back from the heavy, glass doors, revealing the shiny, irregular surface of the frozen pond and the clear, mirrored reflection of the dark, leafless trees standing on the far bank. The wan light cast the world in muted, leaden tones, and dark clouds billowed on the horizon, but there was not even the hint of a breeze. The brass wind chimes hung motionless below the porch roof. Sitting there, at the dining room table that I inherited from my grandparents, the same table around which three generations of my family welcomed decades of new years, I leaned over a steaming cup of tea and a piping bowl of oatmeal, and I was filled with gratitude and hope.

This January 1st is my second in this townhouse apartment in Vanillasville. Rather, it is the second January 1st of this life in this apartment. It is my third January 1st, A.W. – After Walden. That is how I mark time now – Before Walden and After Walden. On my first January 1st, A.W., I was still residing in Boston. In another week, I would make that perilous transition back to life in Vanillasville, with my recovery hanging in the balance. I was still shattered into a billion jagged fragments, a fractured and broken person, but for the first time in my life, they were healthy fragments, and I was in the process of piecing them together. If I could tell that person one thing, it would be this, “Even though the future is terrifying, and you can’t see the way forward, and even though the risks are overwhelming, you are going to get through this, and it is going to be ok.” Maybe that person I was on January 1st, 2015 would tell the me of now the same thing. Though I am still in the process of becoming, I am not where I was on that day two years ago. Neither am I where I was on January 1st, 2016. It is sobering to recognize the truth of this reality.

The year of 2014 was filled with death. I was gravely ill with a serious gastrointestinal illness that defied every treatment my doctors threw at it. I was mentally ill with depression, and I sank deeper and deeper into despair. When my medical symptoms made it difficult to tolerate food, the disordered eating that percolated in the background of my life for many years suddenly seized control of my entire being as a full-blown eating disorder. I survived on the last feeble tatters of what were always slightly distorted, cynical, and disillusioned faith and hope. Yet, at the end of 2014, my life changed. In May, I underwent a new and still somewhat investigational intervention for my GI disease, which worked where all the other treatments failed. Finally, in November, I entered Walden to address my mental illness and my eating disorder. Through the intensive, multidisciplinary care I received, I finally began to rewire the twisted and misfiring circuitry in my brain. The big breakthrough came one day, in the midst of a group session, when the full impact of the following realization finally broke my steely, wounded heart:  God LOVES me. God loves all of us, because He IS Love. God knows everything about me. He knows all of my sins, all of my failures, all of my faults, and all of my dysfunction. He knows how messed up I am, and he still loves me, with all of that stuff going on. Even though he wants better for me, he forgives me, and he loves me just as I am. I don’t have to change. I don’t even have to be sorry. He still loves me. AND, if God loves and forgives me just as I am, who am I to deny myself that same love and forgiveness? Do I know better than God?

That moment was not a cure-all for my mental illness, but it was a major turning point in my recovery. In the past two years, my life grew in ways I never imagined possible.

Now, here I am, on the threshold of 2017. I don’t know what the future holds, and I wonder at God’s plan for my life. What I don’t doubt is that there IS a plan. God saved me for a reason. As Bl. John Henry Newman wrote, “God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission – I never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next…I am a link in a chain, a bond of connexion between persons…I shall do good, I shall do His work; I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it, if I do but keep His commandments and serve Him in my calling. Therefore I will trust him.” This year, I would like to increase in practicing an INTENTIONAL way of life. I would like to be MINDFUL and purposeful in what I think, say, and do. Thus, I would like to continue to grow in FAITH, seeking to do God’s will rather than my own and TRUSTING that all will be well, knowing that even when I struggle, face setbacks, or suffer, I am never alone, and an even greater good is being brought about by our Creator, who ultimately wants nothing for us but what is best.

“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

beanstalk
beanstalk,” © Börkur Sigurbjörnsson (own work), Mar 2012. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

In this vein, my additional intentions for the year are…

  • to grow in true HUMILITY. A humble person knows her strengths and weaknesses, and is honest about both. May I not be afraid to say “yes,” to take risks, and to move beyond my comfort zone, bolstered by a realistic understanding of my gifts and my shortcomings. May I have the courage to ask for help when I need it, and the strength to offer help when I can give it. May I not be afraid to admit my faults with integrity, accepting myself as I am, with a willingness to confront the often-challenging process of making personal changes. May I recognize and own my mistakes with a healthy sense of guilt but without shame, seeking forgiveness and making amends when necessary.
  • to grow in COMPASSION for myself when I fail to live up to these lofty ideals, understanding that nobody is perfect, and this process is the work of a lifetime. May I also grow in compassion for others, recognizing that we all struggle, though our struggles may take different forms. May I seek to look past those differences that I am so quick to use to separate myself from people out of fear. Instead, may I foster the courage and willingness to acknowledge our shared human connection and begin to see others not as separate or opposed to me, but as an extension of myself. May I remember that we are all made by the same Creator, we are all broken, and God’s love is given freely to redeem us all.
  • to GIVE THANKS in all circumstances. Even if it seems the whole world is falling apart around me or my life is unraveling at the seams, there are always blessings to be found. Sometimes, they are hidden and obscure, and often, they may seem to be barely any consolation, but every situation is an opportunity for grace and for growth.

“In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.”

~ 1 Thessalonians 5:18

In our outcome-oriented, results-focused society, we are frequently reminded that effective goals are SMART – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely. (Bonus points for you if you can craft your goal into an acronym.) My areas of focus for 2017 are more elusive, metaphysical, and infinite. Therefore, I am making them intentions rather than resolutions. I am not expecting to achieve success in 2017. I’m not attempting to accomplish anything specific. Rather, I would like to continue growing through this year and beyond. At the same time, I know that concrete practices are the way to foster this progression. I think it is healthy for me to begin with a few explicit objectives. As with all balanced habits, they will invariably shift with the changing demands of my life over these coming weeks and months, but they are a start.

  • Cultivate stillness and silence daily. Practice sitting still, breathing deeply, and accessing my five senses for 10 minutes after coming home at the end of the day.
  • Reduce the amount of time I spend mindlessly watching television or thumbing through my mobile phone. Replace this time with mindful activities, such as reading, writing, art, or meditation.
  • Give my undivided attention to whoever is with me. Listen attentively rather than planning my next response. Show my face, without turning away or engaging in distractions, such as checking my phone (or turning back to my computer screen when I am at work – a tendency of mine that I would like to work on).
  • Cultivate balance in mind, body, and spirit, by making time every week for activities that engage each level of my being. Read a few pages of a book at least once or twice a week. Exercise in a moderate, healthy way (I have a specific exercise plan worked out with my therapist and dietician). I may not make time for every activity every day, but I can maintain a flexible and consistent rhythm through the week.
  • At the conclusion of every evening, before falling asleep, spend 5 or 10 minutes reflecting on the challenges, the successes, the personal encounters, and even the mundane events of the day. Use these nightly examens to assess who I am in relation to who I aim to be and reorient myself for the morning to come.

Finally, I am reminding myself once more that the outcomes that I care about the most are not those that can be assessed by any measuring stick or scale. May we all grow in compassion for ourselves and others in 2017, and may there be an increase in peace in our world through our little, daily acts.

“Let us accustom ourselves to noting that the actions that seem most ordinary are secretly directed by the order of God and serve his designs without our noticing it, in such a way that nothing comes to pass by mere coincidence.”

~ Bishop Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet

Happy New Year!

bells
bells,” © orangejon (own work), Jul 2006. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

 

Seeking Kindness Inspired – The Sixth Week of the Kindness Challenge

Featured Image:  “Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa,” Marquette University Archives, 1979. Available from Jim Forest, via Flickr, uploaded Dec 2010. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

The sixth week of the Kindness Challenge offered an invitation to reflect on those people who inspire me to greater kindness. Pondering this prompt brought to mind thoughts of some very kind and true people. Listing so many men and women who lived dedicated lives of grace, justice, mercy, peacefulness, and selflessness was simultaneously inspirational and frustrating, for their virtues sharply contrasted my own faults. As I thought about this topic, the people I most deeply admired included several saints and many other great figures from history – St. Pope John Paul II, St. Theresa of Avila, St. Francis de Sales, St. Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Dorothy Day. I considered the people whose writings and works influenced me over years. Some occasions in my life marked watershed moments in my own becoming. In my heart, I found that I was still deeply affected by the English thesis that I wrote nearly fifteen years ago on the poetry of Wilfred Owen, and the philosophy course that I took in college where I was first introduced to Leo Tolstoy’s treatise The Kingdom of God is Within You.

Finally, though, I settled upon two role models who seemed to exemplify goodness and loving virtue. These two women were Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta (soon to be St. Teresa of Calcutta on September 4th) and St. Thérèse of Lisieux. In their lives of humility, charity, gentleness, and patience, I found encouragement and hope.

Through St. Thérèse, I am learning about the little way. If only I would find the time to actually take her posthumously published autobiography, Story of a Soul, off of my bookshelf and read it! The little way of St. Thérèse is spoken of often, but it seems very elusive and hard to put into practice. Reading her own words on the topic would probably be helpful, but even from what small bits I know, she is already gently reminding me that I do not need to perform great deeds, achieve astounding feats, or set my eyes on lofty goals in order to make a difference in the world. My part may simply be to live as well as I can in this moment, in this day, choosing the greatest love in the smallest, most ordinary decisions that I make, and thereby increasing the grace and goodness in the universe in a tiny, but not insignificant, increment. And, so, I continue to have patience with my limitations, including my limited time and the fact that I am a very, very slow reader.

“I applied myself above all to practice quite hidden little acts of virtue; thus I liked to fold the mantles forgotten by the Sisters, and sought a thousand opportunities of rendering them service.”

~ St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Story of a Soul, Chapter VII

St Therese of Lisieux
St. Therese of Lisieux,” © Adora8 (own work), March 2014. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

When Mother Teresa took her first vows as a nun, she chose the name “Teresa” after St. Thérèse. Her name as a child in Albania was Gonxha Agnes Bojaxhiu. I first learned about Mother Teresa when I was seven, and one of my classmates chose her as the subject of an autobiographical book report. I was scared of this strange woman in a white robe who didn’t appear at all the way I thought a nun was supposed to look. She didn’t conform to the safe structure of my existing schemas at the time, and I think that made me feel afraid and angry. It was only as I grew up that I discovered the extraordinary compassion, mercy, faithfulness, selflessness, and determination of this incredible woman.

While Mother Teresa’s life served as a source of inspiration on account of her profound virtue, I found myself fascinated by her story for two other reasons. As I learned more about her, I came to understand that her path to her mission among the poorest and most indigent people of Calcutta was not a straight one. She served as a nun for nearly twenty years, teaching and even serving as a school principal, before she received her “call within a call” to work in the slums. It was another two years before she overcame all of the obstacles that prevented her from going directly about the task to which she felt summoned.

Knowing that it took a figure who went on to fulfill such an astounding purpose quite a long time to get there is a comfort to me at my current stage of life. I think that I am on a decent trajectory, but I am not necessarily living my life’s vocation to its fullest extent. Yet. This is not the end. Mother Teresa’s story lends me the courage to keep trying to make the next, right decision, fueling my hope that if I can continue to string together enough of these small choices, my life may still reach farther beyond myself.

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

~ Blessed Mother Teresa

Additionally, I learned that after Mother Teresa found her inspiration and began her greatest work, she experienced a deep, spiritual depression. No one knew of this part of her interior life until a book of her letters was published in 2007. Despite an inner despair, darkness, and sense of total abandonment by God, she carried on in her dutiful ministry. For decades, she served cheerfully, encouraging others, never complaining, always faithful and loving, never hinting at the burden of the pain that weighed her down every day.

Portrait of Mother Teresa
Portrait of Mother Teresa,” © UN Photo/Evan Schneider, 16 Jun 1995. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

In my own life, I often struggle with doubt and depression. For most of my life, I was firmly convinced that God was ambivalent about my existence. Though I would never, ever wish the darkness that Mother Teresa described on any person, the words she left behind about these experiences fill me with gratitude, because I feel less alone in my most despairing thoughts. She shows me how to live with courage, optimism, and brightness, even when I feel far from bright.

“Speak tenderly; let there be kindness in your face, in your eyes, in your smile, in the warmth of your greeting. Always have a cheerful smile. Don’t only give your care, but give your heart as well.”

~ Blessed Mother Teresa

After reflecting on the examples of inspirational people like these two women, it is very easy for me to get stuck in comparison. I start thinking of all the ways I’m not good enough and of all the reasons why I fall short of their virtuousness. That sort of emotional and mental climate is not a healthy wellspring of growth. I tend to be quite hard on myself, and I am quick to devalue my positive qualities while also minimizing the weaknesses of others. Theodore Roosevelt said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” More than joy, though, comparison tends to rob me of my belief in my potential to change. One of the most important lessons for me in the lives of role models like St. Thérèse and Mother Teresa is that I am not meant to become them. By following their examples, I am meant to become the fullest and best possible version of myself. I still don’t know who that is, but I hope that by leaning on the wisdom of good people, I am moving in the right direction…

“God has not called me to be successful. He has called me to be faithful.”

~ Blessed Mother Teresa

 

The Happiness Tag

Tag! I guess I’m it! When I was little, we neighborhood kids came up with some pretty creative variations on the game of tag (television tag was a favorite, although the rules were constantly changing), but I think this happiness tag is the most wholehearted version I have come across, by far! Thank you to Ioana of Music Teacher Lifestyle for tagging me. Reading her posts always puts a smile on my face. You can read all of the beautiful, wonderful things that make her happy, here. Thank you for tagging me, and for inspiring this post, Ioana!

Without further ado…

Five Things that Make Me Happy

  1. A truly restful night of sleep! Is there anything quite so refreshing? All the delicious, black coffee in the world can’t replicate this feeling. When I’m rested, it is so much easier to be mindful, to find gratitude in unlikely places and situations, to cope with distressing circumstances, to connect with others… I could go on and on!
  2. Traveling home to visit my family and closest friends. They are all concentrated together in one area of New England. Getting away from work and spending time with these people, with whom I share my deepest connections, restores my heart and soul!
  3. Riding my bike along the quiet, paved, wooded trail near my house. It’s peaceful and serene to feel the breeze against my skin on a sunny afternoon, to let all the sights, sounds, and smells of nature seep into me, and to exchange friendly smiles with the other people who are enjoying the outdoors.
  4. Lingering over breakfast on my back patio. I am blessed to live on a little pond, with two fountains, and my townhouse is set far back from the narrow, grassy road. It is peaceful and serene. The ducks love to come right up to my back door, looking for wayward crumbs. This summer, a hummingbird is making a home nearby, and I sometimes catch a glimpse of him as he darts between leaves and stems. An overhanging eve keeps the hot rays of the sun and the sprinkling of raindrops at bay. When I sit there with my journal and a cup of tea, it feels like I am on vacation in my own backyard.
  5. The mass. It might sound like a pretty odd thing to draw happiness from, but participating in the liturgy is one of the experiences that often brings me the most joy and sends my heart soaring. Although, for most of my life, nearly the exact opposite was true. I have always been religious, but I was motivated by fear, guilt, shame, obligation, a deep belief that I was not good enough and that God did not love me, and a perfectionistic, rigid, anxious, angry drive to follow all the rules. It was in recovery that my perspective began to shift. I discovered my worthiness. I wish that I could describe how that transformation happened. It was both a gradual process and a sudden, shocking realization. Now, my entire manner of relating to God, the church, and my spirituality is changing. Exploring the actual roots of my faith and learning more about its vibrant traditions is changing my life in ways I never thought possible. Granted, I don’t walk away from every mass feeling elated. It often remains very difficult to stay present and to find meaning and connection. Yet, on those occasions when I am truly open, loving, and mindful, I find joy and beauty that move me to tears.
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The view from my porch, Summer 2015.

Five Songs that Make Me Happy

  1. Come Fly with Me, by Frank Sinatra. There is something classic and timeless about this song, but also simple and nostalgic.
  2. I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles), by The Proclaimers. Who wouldn’t want someone to walk 1,000 miles for them? This song doesn’t bring to mind any particular person for me, but it summons thoughts of all the people I love and who love me. I can’t help but sing along.
  3. We Belong, by Pat Benatar. Because everyone wants to belong, and this song reminds me that we all do. We all belong. We are all worthy. And we don’t have to do anything to earn it.
  4. Once Upon a December, from the animated movie “Anastasia.” This song makes me think of memories of my younger self and brings me comfort when I feel lonely.
  5. Away in a Manger. On her list of happy songs, Ioana included a Christmas carol that brings her happiness the whole year through, so I thought I would do the same! There is a reminder for me in this song that no matter how old I grow, I am always God’s little child, and it strengthens and consoles me even on the hottest summer days.

True happiness needs to be passed on! I am nominating the following bloggers (whose writing often brings me much gratitude and joy) to continue the happiness tag by writing about five things that make them happy and five songs that stir happiness in their hearts.

Happiness Tags:

  1. Anne, of ainsobriety
  2. Jenny, of Peace from Panic
  3. Lauren, of Milly’s Guide to Happiness
  4. Eli, of Coach Daddy
  5. Jenn, of HealthyJenn
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Mallard Family, August 2016

Returning

Featured Image:  “Fenwick Lawn,” © Taliskerbay (own work), Feb 2012. CC BY-SA 3.0. (license)

My heart is a little heavy today. Grateful, but heavy. I suppose that the end of a truly restorative, rejuvenating vacation is often difficult. Although I was sensible of my heavy burden of stress, the many increased demands on my time and my coping skills, and my feeling of defeat and exhaustion, I didn’t fully appreciate how much I changed under that constant weight and the sometimes traumatic unpredictability of my life of late. I failed to recognize just how much more rigid I was reflexively thinking and behaving, my increasing negativity and perfectionism, and the all-or-nothing pattern to my thoughts. As I was departing, my nutritionist, Kendra, whose family also hails from the Boston area, remarked, “Oh, you’re just going home. What you need is a real vacation. Why aren’t you going to Florida?” For an instant, I worried that she was right, but as the reality of my escape settled upon me and the fatigue, anxiety, hopelessness, helplessness, desperation, and despair melted away, I recognized that I was precisely where I needed to be.

Excluding my two days of travel, I passed an almost idyllic week in my old bedroom, nestled among family and friends, waking every morning to the chorus of birds living in the woods behind the house where I grew up. I experienced the blessing of time and the peace of stillness. Mornings of yoga alternated with mornings of mass or rest. My mother and I ventured to the town pool one sunny afternoon to swim laps and then sit in the sun. I was glad for the moral support of another person to accompany me, and I might not have committed to the endeavor without her, but she caught me by surprise when she told me, “Thank you for making me brave.” Funny how courage reciprocates. I went for a bike ride, ate blueberries with milk and sugar, and watched the Red Sox (mostly lose) with my dad. I spent afternoons perusing little shops or simply relaxing at home, laying on the worn carpet with my eyes gently closed in mindfulness meditations, reading, writing, and coloring.

Robbin
Robbin,” © Sean Dunn (own work), May 2013. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

My ten-year college reunion was held during the final weekend of my trip. Revisiting my beloved, cherished alma mater, I reconnected with old friends and made new acquaintances, watched Elliot proudly and excitedly ride the pony at the picnic about a dozen times, spent a ridiculous amount of money on sweatshirts, t-shirts and greeting cards at the school bookstore, showered in the locker room before the fancy dinner, and ate the food(!). The old paths that I trod day after day were the same, with a few minor aesthetic improvements. In the main campus hall, I crossed the same worn, tiled floors that thousands of student feet traversed over the course of the past 170 years, I remembered who I was when I started to add my steps to that legacy. It was then, in this place, that the healing began to happen. I was confused, and I was grasping, and there were many painful experiences to follow, but I think that the connections I made, what I learned about God, the world, humanity, and myself, and the grace that I discovered enabled me to survive what was coming. As I sat in my favorite library, allowing the strong sun of June to filter through the prisms of cut glass in the ornate windows, my heart reflected on it all.

Recollecting the months leading up to my short respite, I am struck by how much I was overwhelmed, lost, and struggling. I expected so much of myself. The story that I told myself was one of inadequacy and fear. With increasingly limited time, accumulating duties at work, and mounting commitments, I felt trapped, stuck, and robbed of my free will. Unable to see a way out, I felt helpless, hopeless, and depressed. I lost my connection with myself. My blogging waned, my focus slipped, even my sleep grew restless and disturbed, and my sadness became tinged with despair. I tried vainly to convince myself, “It’s not so bad.” I attempted to remind myself of my successes, like attending a party, or eating out with friends, or the one night that I passed with my coloring books in relaxation. At the same time, I admonished myself for my shortcomings. Severely. My rigidity mounted and my to-do lists multiplied. Though I “accepted” that there was no way to accomplish everything, I was convinced that if I wasn’t reading (three books), blogging, journaling, drawing, coloring, praying, meditating, swimming, biking, practicing yoga, and keeping up with my various correspondences, I was not living wholeheartedly and all would be forsaken. I would not know joy, and I would not be fulfilled. Except, grasping after all of these goals left me gasping, choking, and drowning. In striving for my ideal, I found myself alienated from the wholeheartedness, joy, and fulfillment for which I longed.

The circumstances that I am returning to are unchanged. The only difference is the lingering bitter-sweetness of the deep tranquility that I enjoyed for those blessed eight days and the pang of connections strengthened, now stretched once more. If this is to be my place in life for the foreseeable future, how shall I then live? If the external factors are constant, the change must come from within. But I am scared. I am scared that I can’t do it, and I am scared of what will happen if I fail. So, I am taking a deep breath, and I am sighing OUT. I’m hiring a housekeeper. I’m putting all of my books back on their shelves and just choosing one. I’m contemplating throwing out all of my lists, but I’m not quite there yet. If I throw them out, they’ll just rattle around in my head, making me anxious, because it has yet to really sink in… I will never be able to do, accomplish, or achieve enough to prove to myself that everything is going to be OK or to eliminate from life its uncertainty. I will never be able to make myself a sufficiently good person. We are all flawed. I’m not going to fix that through diligent application and hard work. All I can do is ACCEPT my inability to control my future and ACCEPT my imperfections. Willingness. Letting go. I’ve been here before. I’ll be here again. It is scary. Deep breath.

Rhodedendron
Rhododendrons at home in Connecticut

A Birthday Rehabilitated – The Second Week of the Kindness Challenge

With life seeming to break around unexpected, sharp turns fairly frequently of late, I apologize that my blogging is a bit erratic and infrequent. There are many words and ideas pinging around in my head, but I am making self-care my priority. I find myself short on free time these days, and to dedicate all of it to writing would mean sacrificing the other parts of myself that bring my mind and soul into balance – my relationships, my personal journal, exercise and yoga, drawing… Well, the result is that I’m a bit behind on my Kindness Challenge Reflections. As I prepare to publish this post, I am a bit dumbstruck by how long it took me to cobble it together, but I am also allowing myself to celebrate the other ways I am using my time – the backyard picnics that I attended with friends this weekend, Saturday’s massage, daily prayer, mindfulness practice, helping my parents around their house, wandering through the garden when the work was finished. With acceptance in mind, I’m continuing forward.

It so happened that the second anniversary of my 30th birthday fell during the second week of The Kindness Challenge, when the task was to “observe kindness around you.” Throughout my personal history, “kindness” and “my birthday” were contradictory terms. In fact, “kindness” was a word that I rarely, if ever used, and it was a concept that I certainly did not understand. You see, the sole function of my birthday was to annually substantiate, to myself and to the world, how little I mattered. It was a day for remembering that I was not only unloved but unlovable… not to mention forgotten, outcast, and worthless. It offered all the evidence that I required to remain irrefutably convicted in my mentally-ill heart that I was abnormal, defective, and irreparably damaged. I repeated the same story to myself year after year to prove why there was no hope for me. Life is not a fairy tale, and there are no such things as happy endings. I only needed to turn on CNN or look to the streets of the city where I lived for evidence of the overwhelming suffering in the world. Somehow, I was convinced that by bearing a disproportionate amount of pain, misery, loneliness, heartache, and despair, I served as a sort of reparation for the injustice and hurt experienced by others.

Underneath it all, I think that I was afraid. Of what, precisely, I’m not entirely certain. The unknown? Change? Allowing myself to be vulnerable? To be dependent on others for my emotional needs? I didn’t understand that human beings are made for each other. I couldn’t comprehend that one of the reasons I felt so lonely and unfulfilled was because no individual can satisfy all her own longings. Our souls demand connection in order to flourish. We are nourished by relationships, even the simple exchanges of a friendly smile between strangers on the subway or a kind greeting over a morning coffee transaction. I viewed my sadness as weakness. My depression was a flaw to be mercilessly vanquished through diligent work and application. Emotions were obstacles on my path to success, and other people could not be trusted. Every May, I broke my own heart. I asked for nothing, but I expected everything. In my romanticized world, I imagined that all of my friends and family would just know as my birthday approached. Though I admonished and scolded myself that life was no fairy tale, I fell for the fantasy of every chick flick, Disney movie, Hallmark Channel original, and jewelry advertisement I ever saw. I was endlessly disappointed, of course. A healthy person might recognize such disappointment as the result of an ideal founded on illusions and clever marketing, but I convinced myself that I didn’t matter. I would never matter. I was destined to be alone and to suffer forever, because it was what I was made for. I was confident that even God was ambivalent to my existence.

My 30th birthday was a murky transition between the darkness of my contorted thinking and the light. I barely dipped a toe into cognitive behavioral therapy beginning in March of that year, and I was not yet owning my “eating issues.” A year later, after six weeks of partial hospitalization for binge eating disorder, four weeks of an intensive outpatient program, and ongoing weekly therapy for my depression, anxiety, and orthorexia, I was ready for something different. Planning a party or organizing an event was still a bit beyond my coping skills. Thoughts of the food challenges, the crowd, and the expectation all provoked anxiety, resulting in my familiar chest tightness and one of my favorite fallbacks – avoidance. My biggest step forward was in acknowledging my birthday and allowing others to celebrate me. As the second anniversary of my 30th birthday approached, I felt a familiar tension rising within. Initially, I succumbed to the pressure of believing that, because I was now in recovery, I needed to honor myself by observing my birthday in a remarkable way. However, apprehension gave way to acceptance and then to a serene peacefulness as I released all of the remaining expectations to which I continued to cling. For perhaps the first time, I decided that a structured, choreographed, orchestrated bash was not requisite to prove my worth or my commitment to my self-love. Instead of assuming that I would be forgotten, I permitted myself to take for granted that the people closest to me would send me cards and that my officemates, who never, ever miss a birthday for anyone in our workplace, would at least hang up our “Happy Birthday!” sign over my desk. Vulnerability. Yet, regardless of what happened, who remembered and who didn’t, or how I celebrated, I knew that I was loved and appreciated, and on more than just a single day of 365.

birthday cards
It isn’t the gifts or cards that make me know that I’m loved… but these are such a cherished reminder.
When I released those expectations, it was as if my birthday transformed into the fairy tale I always imagined, but in an entirely unexpected way. There was no great pomp or flash, but I found magical delight in the simplest kindnesses. I flicked the light switch in my tiny office to illuminate a confetti-strewn scene bedazzled with sparkling, metallic streamers, balloons, and accented with a bouquet of bright flowers practically overflowing their vase. The absence of definitive plans allowed for an impromptu lunch at one of my favorite nearby restaurants with two of my closest colleagues, culminating in another favorite, a warm brownie sundae. I discovered that a brownie sundae is even better when it is shared with your friends on your birthday while the sun shines brilliantly outside, birds whistle springtime songs, and work stands still just long enough for a slow, deep breath that brings life all the way to your toes. I returned home at the end of my day to a stack of packages and cards piled so high that I borrowed a mail crate to carry them all from the front office of my apartment community to my little townhouse. Under a radiant, sunny sky, I rode my bike along the nearby trail, drinking in the colors, sounds, and smells all around me as I reflected on all the love poured into my heart that day.

There are always hard days when I feel myself drawing inward, when I close myself off in a self-protective cocoon. Fear, bitterness, resentment, pain… c’est la vie. If my past birthdays illustrate anything, it is that shutting myself off from the world only guarantees my suffering. Throughout this journey, I am learning the necessity of connection to the wholehearted life for which I long. It can be terrifying to allow myself to so raw and exposed, and it is pretty much guaranteed that I will both be hurt and hurt others along the way. Which leads me to this… don’t we all deserve a little kindness and compassion on this rough path we all must tread? When I open my senses to the kindness and connection all around me, I feel more alive. Today, I am grateful for all of my friends and family who showered me with smiles and thoughtfulness this May, and I am especially grateful for all of the people who loved me through all those hard, dark Mays before. Thank you.

birthday princess
Finally the birthday princess, thanks to my wonderful coworkers, who know that I’m just a little girl at heart.

#RevofKindness #bekind

Riding the Rails

Featured Image:  “Derail, Mississippi,” © The Spider Hill (own work), May 2010. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

A casual scroll through the dates of my last postings will reveal my dwindling blog activity. The truth is that I am struggling…

About a month ago, my understanding of my world abruptly crashed, leaving a field of chaos like so many shards of a broken mirror. Splintered fragments were all that remained of the smooth, silvery, reflective glass that was safely shielding me from needing to confront the tumultuous realities of my very uncertain position in life. The truth was always present, floating just behind the veil. I chose not to focus on it. Instead, I passed the last year looking through a beautiful kaleidoscope of color, perceiving, for the first time in my life, the stunning beauty all around me. Despite the jagged edges of my bumpy, twisting recovery, I found joy and gratitude in the vibrancy that I newly appreciated. To be sure, I was aware of a degree of unpredictability and uncontrollability. I knew that I could not know my future. Yet, I took for granted a certain stability and sameness in my work, my surroundings, my community, my family and friends… and I was deeply thankful for it. “No major changes in the first year,” a confidant with experience in counseling people recovering from alcohol and substance abuse repeatedly advised me. It was reassuring and comforting to rest in a relatively constant landscape while taking my first tentative steps into recovery. After a young lifetime marred by depression, anxiety, suicidality, disordered eating, and instability, a single year of stability was a blessing and a great gift. Yet, it was a gift I tended to not examine too closely, for when I did peer into that distorting magnifying glass, the tingles of fear began to prickle in my fingers and creep upwards into my hands, inching gradually toward my center… the fear of loss.

Not enough time! Not yet! I need more time! That was my first response when I received the news. After six years in the same cozy, comfortable, townhouse-style apartment in Vanillasville and three years in the same relaxed, flexible professional assignment, I received an email from HR that would derail my recovery and launch my emotions on a bullet train over terrain resembling the Alps, my body dragging along behind, hurtling haphazardly along the rocky landscape, bouncing against the unforgiving outcroppings, becoming more and more broken with each racing turn or screaming descent. Directly, the email stated, “Respond by the end of the business day tomorrow with your preference between the following three locations. You will be relocated this summer.” Two of the spots were in distant states and one was overseas.

To my credit, my panic did not settle in immediately. Initially, I told myself, There must be some sort of mistake. Or, at least there must be some sort of other option, some avenue that will allow me to stay where I am. It was a few hours later, after several fruitless, initial attempts to obtain more information and to express my desire to NOT return to the pressured, intense, demanding, competitive, workaholic, political, miserable world from which I escaped three years ago, that the bullet train of anxiety shot away from its platform and out of the station. Gracefully, mercifully, after two days of sleeplessness, palpitations, breathlessness, and a sensation of daggers driving into my stomach, and with the merciful, compassionate assistance of my colleagues and supervisors, HR relented. “But,” the representative declared to me on the phone, “Get ready. Because I guarantee you with 100% certainty, that you will be relocated next summer.” For another two days, my breathing was easier, but the train never returned to the station.

Speed2
Speed,” © John Georgiou (own work), Apr 2009. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

Nothing changed, I told myself. There is nothing different about my life now, about me now. It is all the same. Physically, tangibly, concretely, these statements were true. However, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, everything was different. And I hated myself that it was so. HATED myself. Because, it shouldn’t be that way. Where were my skills? Where was the faith and trust in God that I thought I was cultivating? As I moved from anxiety through depression, anhedonia, anger, and irritability, I found my thoughts spiraling into familiar and detested territory – self-shame, blame, and judgment. In the small journal where I recorded my daily bodily sensations/hunger/fullness and the thoughts streaming through my mind during meal times, an unhappy pattern crept into my reflections. I hate myself. I’m a failure. My insight enabled me to recognize the pathology of these thoughts, and I despaired for entertaining them. With my emotions swinging wildly and my mentation becoming increasingly catastrophic, alarming, all-or-nothing, and black-and-white, impulses and urges to use food as a comfort arrived almost imperceptibly. Rationalizations and justifications to engage in emotional eating abounded. Confusion and internal conflict were my daily diet.

Confusion… because I didn’t binge. I didn’t restrict. I didn’t over-exercise. I told myself that I was failing, and I told myself that I was unable to use my skills, yet I reached out. I demanded help. I curled up in a ball on my therapist’s sofa and cried for an hour, took a day off from work to dedicate to self-care, and exhaled a long sigh. Within days, I was acting out, ranting in a way that terrified me. I passed a long weekend visiting Alice for her daughter’s second birthday. I journaled for days about my lack of faith and how I detested myself for my inability to trust in God’s goodness. I lamented my fear of pain and future disaster, which was destroying my present happiness. Then, I made an appointment to speak to my parish priest, challenging my own distorted ideas about God, blame, punishment, worthiness, forgiveness, love, and life. He gently listened, without dismissing any of my concerns, he appreciated my anxieties and normalized my doubts, and then, without judgment, he offered his wisdom, understanding, and what reassurance he could give, telling me that we would meet again as often as I needed. I left his office with a sense of peace and safety, only to lapse into my chaotic cycle again a day or two later. Up and down. Back and forth. Around, backwards, sideways, and upended.

One Monday at 11:30pm, in tears, I called my childhood friend, Rachel, after eating two desserts. Of course, there was more to the story. I was away at our industry’s annual, international conference, and I was out with a group of close colleagues. We were enjoying a raucously good time. I lost track of how often I pitched my head back and released a full-bodied laugh that shook every muscle. When was the last time that I was raucous? When was the last time I allowed myself to be loud, rambunctious, and uninhibited? It was uncomfortable. It was just like the “old me.” I ate a dinner that was perfectly fitting for my meal plan. Then, instead of turning into bed for a solid night of rest, I convinced my friends that a late-night dessert would be a wonderful idea. And then, I ate two. DON’T I CARE?!!! WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME?!!! I demanded of myself. It was “just like” that person I “used to be.” The girl that drank and partied, stopped for pizza with the gang at Jumbo Slice at 1 am after one too many in Adams Morgan or ordered Chinese food in the post-midnight, pre-dawn hours before falling asleep on Alexandra’s couch when she couldn’t make it back to her dorm. It reminded me of the self who was out-of-control, who stayed up too late, and who woke up hung-over. Self-hatred, remorse, and shame as thick as a blanket of nails wrapped around me. “You don’t understand…” “Yeah, but…” I replied antagonistically to Rachel’s reasonable questions and encouragements. There was that hyper-reactionary, emotional, catastrophic, inflexible, panicked, intractable thinking again. “I know I’m being irrational!” I sobbed. “I know I’m being moody and irritable and dramatic.” What I didn’t know was what to do about it.

Am I worse? Am I failing? How bad is this going to get? When is my descent going to stop? Where? What sort of shape am I going to be in by the time I finally get my feet under me again? How do I slow the train? I want to get off.

On Tuesday morning, I delivered an expertly crafted (if I do say so myself, which I do) presentation to a packed room. Of all the people composing the panel on which I sat, my talk generated the most questions, and I responded to each one, unfazed.

On Tuesday afternoon, I checked in with my therapist. Surely she noticed the marked changes in my moods, my language, and my behavior. “Yes,” she admitted. I confessed that I didn’t trust my own judgment. I catastrophize too much. How do I know if I am really falling? I tell myself that my life is off-the-rails. Is it even true? WHAT DO I DO?! SOMEONE DO SOMETHING! I went for a walk on the beach. I smiled at strangers and exchanged kind words with people at bus stops and on park benches. I attended mass. I breathed in. I sighed out. For the remainder of the week, I isolated myself in my hotel room when not attending the conference, and by Thursday, I was so lonely that I joined three of my closest friends from work at the hotel buffet. I was unabashedly direct. “A buffet is probably not the best place for a binge eater,” I told them. They gave me their support, just as always. And I ate a meal that fit nicely into my meal plan, just as always. We laughed. I breathed in. I sighed out.

There are no answers right now. Just as there are no answers as to what I will be doing or where I will be living a year from now. So, I wait. I wake up every morning, and I try again. I ride the rails. I don’t know where they lead. I go for mindful walks, I meet with my nutritionist, I confide in my supports. I participate in yoga class, and even when I am feeling depressed, I make an effort to get myself to the gym. I follow my meal plan. I tell myself, Just do what you can.

Ad astra per aspera.

Reach for the Stars
Reach for the Stars,” © Tony Beverely (own work), Sep 2014. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

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.