“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.”
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.
“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
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.”
My best gift this Christmas wasn’t the new yoga pants that my brother and sister-in-law gave me, though I picked them out, and they were exactly what I wanted. It wasn’t the set of practical (and safe!) blinking, clip-on, LED lights that I can wear when I ride my bike at dusk, though they were also on my list. It wasn’t even the Starbucks gift card that I received in the office white elephant exchange. No.
To be more specific, the gift was a charitable donation to the World Wildlife Fund in the amount of one polar bear adoption. I am reasonably certain that the money from the contribution goes to fund a variety of the organization’s conservation efforts, including measures to save polar bears and their habitats. In the mail, I received a form letter from the president of the WWF explaining that Margie, one of my college roommates, made the donation and adopted the polar bear in my name. The large package also included a photograph of “my” (or rather, “a”) polar bear, an official-looking certificate, a little card with some facts about polar bears, and the most adorable, soft, cuddly plush polar bear one could imagine.
On the radio this year, I heard some talk show hosts discussing “research” indicating that people generally don’t like to receive gifts of charitable donations for the holidays. I can’t remember the primary source of this information or where the results were published, but I can testify to this fact – though I recognize that Margie’s contribution to the WWF didn’t actually adopt a real, live polar bear for me, I LOVE MY IMAGINARY ADOPTED POLAR BEAR!!!!! I love knowing that this Christmas gift money went to an amazing cause rather than to the cause of amassing more stuff that I don’t truly need, no matter how purposeful it is or how much I really longed for it. I love the cuddly, little toy polar bear that accompanied the donation letter. I love the photograph of my curious (though I am sure, very ferocious) living polar bear in his native, snowy land. Most of all, I love how this gift tells me that I AM KNOWN, AND I AM LOVED. Despite all of my weird, often hypocritical, sometimes brusque idiosyncrasies, I am still loved.
You see, back in our college days, I thought that I was going to reverse the trend of global warming by convincing everyone I knew to reduce, reuse, and recycle. With alarming ideas about rising sea levels, disappearing glaciers, and shrinking ice caps in mind, I pictured the habitats of the polar bears slowly vanishing. While all of those factors were (and are) contributing to increased pressures on polar bears and declining populations, trying to convince my roommates to turn down the thermostat at night by exclaiming, “You’re killing the polar bears!” probably contributed little to improving the overall survival of the species. I can imagine that it was somewhat comical and frequently exasperating to live with me constantly declaring, “You’re killing the polar bears!” whenever someone showered for more than 20 minutes or left the water running while washing the dishes. “This from the girl who drives an SUV,” one of our friends once quipped after I made note of her excessive use of Styrofoam. In the interceding 10 years, life experience (and loads of therapy) buffered my all-or-nothing thinking and softened my approach. Yet, what this gift showed me was that Margie not only remembered this quirk of mine, but loved me in spite of it.
To be known fully, in all my imperfect messiness, and treasured just as I am… that is the best Christmas gift of all!
It would seem that I am at a crossroads of my life, and it is difficult to write about, mainly because it is hard to describe and confusing to experience.
When I first relocated to Vanillasville from Washington, DC, I never intended to stay. I welcomed the reprieve from the traffic, the expense, and the intensity of the city, but it was supposed to be a temporary respite. My family, my friends, and the cultural identity were all on the East Coast. I meant to work for three years, gaining experience and knowledge in my field, and then my company would relocate me somewhere else in the country. I was 26 at the time. I still believed that my life was something that I planned and controlled.
Those three years passed, and indeed I was offered an opportunity to relocate to the West Coast. By then, I was disillusioned by the sacrifices I was making for my career. I was working 80 hours a week, and there was no existence beyond my job. I dreaded moving west only to continue the same self-destructive pattern. It was the wrong move both geographically and existentially. At the same time that I was facing this transition, another position opened within my organization that would allow me to remain in Vanillasville but would effectively remove me from my competitive professional ascent. With 40-hour work-weeks, it would both give me a life and suspend my career. Neither option was perfect, but I chose my mental, physical, and spiritual health. I stayed in Vanillasville.
It would still take another year or two, a brush with my own mortality, and boatloads of therapy for me to begin to understand what Lucy’s father told her in one of my favorite movies, While You Were Sleeping. “Life doesn’t always turn out the way you plan.” I would never wish the severe, debilitating, life-altering colitis that affected throughout that next year on myself or anyone else, but the devastation of that disease led me to mental health for the first time and started me on a path to mental, emotional, and spiritual healing – the most meaningful and important journey of my life.
When I stepped away from my power-career trajectory, I took a position below my potential. It was what was necessary at the time, and it provided space for me to grow in ways I never imagined were possible. And yet… the job itself was never exactly satisfying or fulfilling. I always imagined there was something more out there that I could be doing. “One day,” I would tell myself. “When I am better recovered. After I am able to build some better professional connections and broaden my experience. When I’m strong enough. When I’m ready.”
When is that day? How will I know when I’m ready? I will never be strong enough, or prepared enough, or recovered enough, or experienced enough. The truth is that my recovery is going well. After more than two years, I continue to remain in remission from binge eating disorder. I never thought I would be able to be so flexible, adaptable, and relaxed around food. From time to time, I even find myself experimenting with the word “recovered.”
Two weeks ago, I emailed out my resume. Two days ago, I was given a telephone interview with the director of a program that would be a “perfect” fit for me, from all outward signs. Perfectly imperfect – it is still located in the Midwest. I don’t know what will happen. I don’t know what I want to happen. What I do know is that there is no going back. My job is a good one, providing a stable salary, excellent benefits, and allowing me to dedicate my energy and free time to what I value the most, but I recognize now that I can’t stay in one place forever. It is said that part of the temperament shared by many people with eating disorders is an aversion to risk, and I believe it. To leave behind this familiar world, where I am confident in my abilities, secure in my surroundings, and supported by a nurturing network of wonderful people, is both exhilarating and devastating at the same time. Yet, I can’t unlearn what I am coming to know about myself, and I can’t grow backward.
As Christmas Day nears, I am considering how far I am from where I was at this time last year. I can’t help wondering where I will be when next Christmas arrives.
“Don’t be afraid to give up the good and go for the great.”
Monday, the Fourth of July, was Independence Day in the United States. As I reflected on that occasion, I remembered where I was and what I was doing on the very same date last year. As I briefly mentioned in my previous post, July 4th, 2015 concluded with me staring down the barrel of a fully-loaded ice-cream-sundae buffet. I nearly succumbed to the pure panic that the accursed dessert provoked in me. Nearly.
Here’s the scoop… Oh, goodness, I crack myself up! But though I jest, there is nothing amusing about this next bit…
At the end of my road, there is a small ice cream shop, which is part of a local chain. Their homemade ice cream is touted as some of the best in the world, and it even wins national awards. Unfortunately, this shop is also a place where I engaged in some of my worst self-harming binge behaviors. At the climax of my eating disorder, I was dropping in two or three times each week for a double-scoop sundae with all the fixings and an armful of chocolate bars, to-go. From all appearances, it was impossible to tell that I already consumed the equivalent of a Thanksgiving meal earlier in the afternoon, and I would continue to eat for another several hours once I returned home. My binges only ended when I was laying on the living room carpet, clutching my abdomen in pain, tears streaking my cheeks, unable to even squeeze a sip of water into my distended belly, afraid I would die in the middle of the night from a gastric rupture.
When I returned from partial hospitalization treatment at Walden, I never wanted to relive that agony again. I was almost militant in my avoidance of my most provoking triggers, among them being the ice cream shop at the corner of the street. At first, the mere sight of the building induced such anxiety that I needed to pull out every last one of my coping skills each time I drove past. Slowly, over time, I built new memories and healthy associations with my environment. My diseased, habitually patterned thoughts and activities were overwritten by my new life. The ice cream shop faded into the background.
After my Independence Day sundae buffet confrontation last summer, my straight-talking and amazing nutritionist, Kelly, challenged me to explore my authentic relationship with ice cream. “Do you even like ice cream?” she asked. No! I wanted to exclaim. I hate ice cream! It upsets my stomach! It is repugnant to me! Blech! My reaction was one of self-defense. At Kelly’s insistence, I revisited my favorite ice cream establishment, using my new knowledge of mindful eating to fully immerse myself in the experience and enjoyment of the cold, soft, smooth, melty, sweet, sticky, chocolatey-chippy goodness. Yet, I remained tense. It felt too familiar. Too close to old behaviors. At least, that was what I told myself, in my self-defensive, self-protective way. “What would happen if you actually liked the ice cream?” Kelly prodded. Danger! Danger! Danger! I would want it ALL the time! I would eat it ALL the time! I would get fat! It would RUIN my life!
In the fall, my friend, Amelia, and I began meeting for dinner at a different, local, independent restaurant every couple of weeks. These outings were a fun, social events for us both, and they were also my project from Kelly. Every two or three weeks there was a new chef, a new menu, a new challenge, but the same, supportive Amelia and wonderful conversation. On our very first night out, we came to the understanding that we would always order dessert. As I sampled my way across an assortment of artisanal treats, I discovered something surprising about my tastes. The first new revelation was that I actually had tastes. Real tastes. Rather than obeying the impulsive, anxious, preoccupying urges to eat certain foods, I discovered foods with a taste, texture, and aroma that delighted all of my senses. I came to realize that I actually didn’t like many of the foods that were once the object of my obsessions and the fuel of my binges. Soon, I happened upon a new favorite. Hot pastry, with just the right consistency, preferably a slice of cake or brownie, but sometimes a bubbling fruit tart, with one scoop of ice cream (just one please), and maybe a dab of chocolate sauce. There’s a moment when the ice cream juuuuust begins to melt and all the flavors swirl together in a way that is both cool and warm at the same time. Mmmmmm…
…… we interrupt this blog for the author to make a quick jaunt down the road for a brownie and a scoop of ice cream with hot fudge…… Did I mention that they make their own whipped cream at the little shop on the corner?!
Ok, I’m back.
Eleven months after I almost hit the pavement on the Fourth of July 2015, I confidently walked the short, ten-minute stroll to that ice cream shop at the corner of my street. I perched on a bench, with my little, plastic dish and spoon in my hands, watching the mint-chocolate-chip dribble down in tiny rivulets and swirl around the thick fudge. Dipping my spoon, I raised that first taste to my mouth… So yummy! That was all. Just, “So yummy.” This thought was not followed by a crisis of conscious. There was no panicked catastrophizing, no racing heart, and no desperate eyes darting around for the exit. I sat on the little outdoor patio, feeling the hot summer sun on my very pale legs, listening to the gentle wooshing of cars rolling by, letting the chocolate chips and nibbles of brownie slide over my teeth and my tongue, and soaking in every bite, every drop of those delicious, mingling flavors.
This Fourth of July, I celebrated freedom in a different way. I celebrated my freedom from fear over food. Or, at least, this one food. Happy Independence Day!
Shifting from someone concerned about making health-conscious food choices to a person with profoundly limiting orthorexia was subtle. My decompensation slowly progressed over several years, though my caloric restriction and weight loss were fairly dramatic and abrupt. When I first entered treatment for my binge eating disorder, I couldn’t even acknowledge my underlying anorexic and orthorexic tendencies. I freely admitted to my use of disordered overeating and binge behaviors. This history of using food to numb and avoid strong emotions, discomfort, or pain was a maladaptive coping mechanism that traced back into my childhood. However, I refused to allow that my actual eating disorder began as a predominantly restrictive problem. My adamant denial was so powerful that I actually convinced myself that my nutrition was balanced and adequate when I wasn’t actively binging. (FALSE!) Though I was deeply ashamed of the label “binge eater,” it was easier to identify with that diagnosis than to face the truth that my restriction, over-exercise, and weight-loss obsession was dangerous, unhealthy, and unsustainable. The fear of relinquishing control over my food choices and the threat of the weight gain that might result were unbearable.
Withholding information and bending facts in an effort to create reality as I desired it to exist and my attempts to manipulate the outcome of my treatment only resulted in setbacks, frustration, and despair. As I experienced failure after failure, I begrudgingly revealed the full depth of my disorder. I reluctantly pulled at the threads of my story, picking apart one strand at a time. Finally, eight months after being diagnosed with BED and a month after my discharge from partial hospitalization, my nutritionist was able to weave the complete tapestry together. She was the first to verbalize what I intrinsically knew to be true about my eating. My binging did not exist in isolation. I was also a restrictive eater with underlying orthorexia.
My task is now to unwind the tight tangle of fear, limitation, avoidance, and control. Undoing the knot takes place even more gradually and inconspicuously than the act of snarling it up. Perhaps the subtlety of the process is itself a marker of my improvement. The fact that sampling a “new” food does not always involve a climactic battle against apprehension and anxiety is a victory. This is a pretty stark contrast to last Fourth of July, when staring down a table of make-your-own ice cream sundae fixings filled me with so much panic that I nearly passed out. More recently, I am observing that when I spot a different or novel food, I may just eat it. Whether I am motivated by hunger and a lack of other choices, or by curiosity, or both, the result is the same.
At a Memorial Day cookout with friends back home, both need and intrigue were factors when, rather unceremoniously, I reached for a cheeseburger. Ok, ok. It wasn’t really a cheeseburger. A friend was grilling sliders, those smaller medallions of ground beef, which he topped off with a slice of cheddar folded into quarters. There was no flourish, and hardly anyone noticed when I wandered into the kitchen, observed that these miniature beef patties were my only protein option of the evening, and placed one on my plate (without a bun or condiments). Even I barely registered that this was an unprecedented and unusual action for me. It was only my friend’s half-startled, somewhat awkward, but abundantly considerate and compassionate comment, “There’s more food in the fridge if you need anything else,” which triggered my introspection. Why would I need anything else? I wondered. Why is he concerned? It took a few minutes before it dawned on me… It wasn’t long ago that I DID need my own special meal EVERY time we ate together.
There are still many occasions when I opt for a peanut butter sandwich tucked into my purse instead of lunch at a restaurant when I’m on the go, but I don’t view this as a symptom of my orthorexia. Though my goal is to loosen my restriction, I am still allowed to be health-conscious (and budget-conscious) in my choices. The reality is that I am much more comfortable eating a wider variety of foods when the occasion arises, and my trepidation and self-consciousness about eating in front of others is also improving. Last June, I left the church picnic after 15 minutes, because I couldn’t bring myself to eat a hamburger, and because I was so insecure about not knowing anyone with whom to socialize or talk. A few weeks ago, I attended the same annual picnic, and passed a delightful afternoon, chatting and eating until the cleanup crew began to pack their gear away. I won’t be making hamburgers and cheeseburgers a staple of my regular diet, but I I continue to add experience after experience that reinforces this truth – there is more to food than what I stare at on my plate. This is what nourishes and sustains me – the people I love, in the places close to my heart.
Over the last few days, I read many wonderful reflections about Valentine’s Day written by so many talented and thoughtful people. There were poems, letters, treatises, quotations, and photographs. My favorite pieces were written by Sanny Spear (“How many likes do you need to like yourself?”) and Ashley Wilson Fellers (“Five Little Reminders for You, On Valentine’s Day”). (Go read them!). Although Valentine’s Day came and went, I wanted to share my own, small voice on the subject.
Oh, Valentine’s Day. A friend of mine jokingly refers to this occasion as “Singles Awareness Day.” I have a new name for Valentine’s Day, though. I-Love-Me Day. Here is the story of my second annual I-Love-Me Day and the history behind it.
What could be worse than an entire holiday dedicated to true love (or at least expertly marketed that way), for a perpetually single, lonely, unhappy person? Actually, pretty much any special event that might be enjoyed with a special someone, like a birthday, Christmas, Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July, Labor Day, Saturday… During all those long years of untreated depression, any event was an invitation to self-pity. When I first sought mental health treatment for my mood disorder, in the midst of an acute adjustment crisis precipitated by some very traumatic life events, my personality testing revealed some “problem areas.” My cognitive behavioral therapist chose his words carefully. If I really wanted to improve, I was going to need to delve deep into my core, into the very framework of my being, to the foundations of my personality that were laid in infancy and built upon through childhood, adolescence, and on which I continued to construct. The basement was shoddy, dug in unstable ground, cracked and leaking, and the framework around it was all catawampus. I was going to need to dance with some very old, very scary skeletons, to shine a light into some dark corners while not entirely knowing what lurked out of sight. I remember my reaction as clearly as if it all unfolded yesterday. After thirty years of coping, what difference did it make? I wanted some survival skills to improve just enough to pull myself back from the precipice I was approaching. “Um, no thanks!” I replied, overly chipper. “Maybe we could just do some basic CBT so I can learn tools to help me be not quite so depressed.” I figured that I would be satisfied if I could return to my previous status quo. I didn’t know any other way of being. Oh, naiveté. What a blessing. I was about to go to places that I didn’t know existed in the depths of my mind and soul and open sealed trunks that I didn’t remember shutting. Before the rebuilding came the demolition, and it turned out that I had less choice in the matter than I presumed.
That girl, the depressed, driven, anxious, perfectionistic, never-enough, super-achieving, relentless, angry, resentful, hurting, fragmented person, was the one who loathed Valentine’s Day. Every February 14th delivered a fresh wound. Not only did I pick at the scabs, but I twisted the knives deeper and deeper into my chest with my own hand. Not once did I ever make plans, reach out, or consider anyone other than myself. Yet, when I wasn’t remembered and pitied by family and friends, I stewed in bitterness. At least my own parents ought to send me flowers! I thought. They have each other, and I have nobody. And I never will. At the risk of sounding too all-or-nothing and self-deprecating, even then, I could be thoughtful, sweet, and generous. But not on Valentine’s Day. On that day, I was toxic. I wasn’t yet able to recognize the distortions in my thinking that influenced my mood and behavior and contributed to my isolation and misery.
Part of the problem was that I wholly believed a lie promulgated by society and by many very well-meaning people in my life. I thought that my life would dramatically change for the better if I found love, or at if I was in a relationship. How many times did I hear, “The right person is out there for you,” and “It will happen when you least expect it.” There was always a bit of conflict in my heart, though, when those conversations arose, because, a) I didn’t believe such unsubstantiated and trite statements, and b) I was never certain that I wanted to marry. I was pretty sure from a very young age that I didn’t want to raise children. It just didn’t feel right. The idea made me uneasy, as though I was called toward some different path. I wasn’t opposed to the idea of marriage and raising a family. If it happened, that would be wonderful, but if it didn’t, that would be wonderful, too. It was while I was undergoing partial hospitalization treatment for my eating disorder that I realized it was okay to feel that way. A funny thing happened when I explained to my friends the new sense of fulfillment and enjoyment I discovered through cultivating my other meaningful relationships and exploring what it meant to live wholeheartedly. Suddenly, they thought my single life was fine as it was, and the pressure to date stopped!
Along came Valentine’s Day 2015. The message on the marker board at Walden on January 1st read, “Let 2015 be the year you start moving away from external validation and moving toward internal validation,” and I began to learn that I didn’t need anyone else to tell me that I was worthy of love. Thus, I-Love-Me Day was born. My little acts of self-care didn’t amount to much at first glance, but it was the attitude behind them that made the fundamental difference. Several weeks in advance, I ordered myself a dozen roses, to be delivered a few days before the big occasion. The fourteenth was a Saturday, so I purchased a plane ticket home for the weekend. Who wants to be alone for I-Love-Me Day? Love is meant to be SHARED! Of course, home is Connecticut. Of course, it snowed. Yet, it was beautiful snow. I thrilled at that lovely, fluffy, white stuff from the other side of a picture window, inside the warmth of a house filled with people, while I painted my nails and wrote Valentine’s cards to all of my friends, far and wide. I covered the stationary with glitter and with pink and red hearts. Considering the fact that I penned those notes on Valentine’s Day itself, I knew they would all arrived at their destinations a week late, but I embraced my imperfection, expressed my apologies along with my affection, and imagined someone cheerfully discovering an unexpected, belated Valentine on a random Thursday. I spent time with friends from high school, and I returned to Vanillasville brimming with gratitude and joy.
It was with eager anticipation that I looked forward to this Valentine’s Day. I ordered myself another dozen roses (yellow this time), and booked my flights. Around the middle of January, I noticed a particular sweater in the window of the clothing store next to one of my favorite coffee shops. It was heather gray with multi-colored little hearts in several rows along the scoop neck. It was perfect! This year, I managed to mail out most of my glittery greeting cards with at least two days to spare (although some are still un-mailed on my counter… I’m simply spreading out the love). During the days preceding my departure, I took so much delight in the thought of my second I-Love-Me Day that I never experienced the teensy bit of angst and apprehension that would typically pester me before any trip. Instead of perseverating over the laundry to be done and the messy state of the apartment, worrying about packing, ruminating on what I would eat, and repeatedly planning my schedule down to the minute, I told myself, It’s my I-Love-Me Day. It’s all okay. I never get the house cleaned before I leave on any of my trips anyway, so why bother about it? Everything will work out one way or another, just like always. And it did. I gave the driver of the airport shuttle an exorbitant tip simply because I could. I decided not to paint my nails simply because I didn’t want to. I stayed at a familiar hotel, where, despite sub-zero temperatures, I remained toasty warm. Each night, I took extra-hot showers for an extra-long time and then fell asleep extra-early on an extra-soft mattress. Confession – I wore my special sweater for two days in a row. On Saturday, I passed the entire day with wonderful friends. We made an excursion to the Children’s Museum, rode the train back from the city, and chatted away all afternoon. Sunday dawned cold and bright. After a bit of a sunny drive, I found myself enjoying lunch with another precious friend and sharing apple crisp à la mode. When we were finished, our waitress even brought us two long-stem roses. An unexpected treat! It was not as though the entire weekend was without bumps and hiccups, but they each seemed rather inconsequential when the tape deck in my head was playing, I-Love-Me Day, I-Love-Me Day, Oh how I love I-Love-Me Day over and over.
Now that I’m back, and my routine is creeping into my life once more, I am wondering, why can’t I-Love-Me-Day be I-Love-Me Week? How long can I make this last? There is still a pack of Hallmark cards awaiting a pen stroke or two. Maybe I will stop at the florist on the way home from the post office for another colorful bouquet. Perhaps tomorrow is the day that I will feel like painting my nails…
At some point tomorrow, I will find myself at mass for Ash Wednesday, to mark the beginning of the Lenten season. I am telling myself that I will attend the morning service at 7 am, but being realistic, I know that making it to my office by 8 o’clock on a daily basis is a struggle. Fortunately, there is another service in the evening. I’m looking forward to this Lent with a great deal of eagerness and anticipation. Does that seem strange, especially for someone with an eating disorder? After all, Lent is a penitential season, meaning that it is a season of repentance. We listen to readings about fasting, weeping, and mourning for our sins, about our need to turn to God for mercy, and then we receive a word of caution to guard against hypocrisy, self-aggrandizement, and self-pity. As the ashes are distributed, we hear the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Or, alternatively, “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”) Why would I be looking forward to Lent with joy?
To be quite honest, until last year, Lent was a season of perfect misery and torture for me. In case I needed any external reminders of how imperfect, broken, fallen, wicked, miserable, and wretched I was, the Church dedicated 40 days to this theme. Throughout the whole year, I did a well enough job of berating myself and denying my worth and value, convinced there was no hope of ever changing. During Lent, the self-shaming and self-hating escalated astronomically. My unhealthy Lenten metamorphosis was partly due to the disordered core beliefs at the center of my destructive personality and partly due to my untreated depression. It was facilitated by some fundamental misunderstandings and misinterpretations of the philosophy, tradition, and teachings of the Catholic Church. All of these factors intertwined with one another, shaping my view of myself, my life, the world, my faith, and God into some sort of creepy, hall-of-mirrors distortion.
Until last year, Lent was my God-imposed diet. As I was growing up, my family made the same Lenten sacrifices every year. No eating between meals, no chocolate, and no meat on Fridays. The reason that it followed so closely after Christmas was as much about making up for eating too many peanut butter blossoms and toffee crunch squares as it was about reorienting toward God. The Church only required fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. The Catholic definition of a fast was more lenient than one might expect, and allowed for two small meals and one larger meal during the course of the day. The idea was not to restrict food in an unhealthy way, but to introduce a little inconvenience into life for a short time so as to remember that one does not live on bread alone.* Abstinence from meat was called for on Ash Wednesday and each Friday of the season. These “minimal” obligations were too lax for my parents, though, who thought the Church was going soft. To demonstrate real faith required daily fasting. By the time we ate dinner at 7:30 or 8 o’clock at night, I would be starving, especially once I was in high school and was playing varsity tennis in the afternoons. Those nights were when I engaged in some of my earliest binges. Yet, the rules were absolute. When I moved out on my own, I became even more rigid and strict with myself, believing that this proved my worthiness and faithfulness. With each passing year, the anxiety, desperation, and shame that I felt as I fell short of my goals again and again deepened. As I intensified my self-deprivation, my mental health tanked. The last two or three years before my eating disorder was diagnosed and treated were the worst. By Easter, invariably, I was binging out of control and praying for death to bring an end to my suffering.
There was no single “Aha!” moment when it suddenly dawned on me that Lent was a spiritual gift. As I plugged away at my practice of cognitive and dialectical behavioral therapy skills, my self-view began to slowly, ever so slightly, shift. Inch by hesitant, halting inch, my core beliefs started to change. My relationship with God radically altered. The instant that I finally understood, deep in my heart, that I could be loved and forgiven by God in my flawed and imperfect state, before I fixed anything about myself, was a defining moment in the course of my eating disorder recovery. I became curious about the real traditions and teachings of the faith in which I was raised. I started to read voraciously. C. S. Lewis, Rev. Robert Barron, and Mother Teresa. I started asking questions of actual Biblical scholars. It turned out that just about everything I thought I knew was wrong. A humbling universe of love, mystery, wonder, forgiveness, mercy, and beauty opened before me. It was a place in which it was safe to be uncertain. In fact, uncertainty was a requirement. It was a place where imperfection was the expectation. I wanted more.
What I am learning about Lent is that it is a time for centering. It is, indeed, a time for penitence, but not in my old way of understanding. It is a summons to remember our flaws and to realize that we are not able to overcome them on our own. We are asked to turn our shortcomings over to our merciful God, trusting that he forgives us completely and is always helping us to do better. It is a reminder that we are not supposed to be perfect or self-sufficient EVER. The focus of Lent is prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, but the definitions of these concepts are not necessarily what you find when you flip through a copy Merriam-Webster’s. The Lenten “fast” is an invitation to let go of those worldly habits or material goods that distract a person from a life devoted to God. A life devoted to God is a life devoted to LOVE, because LOVE is what God IS. Thus, we are reminded to LOVE, not only God, but each other and… wait for it… ourselves. For six short weeks, we are asked to let go of something that diminishes our capacity to known God and to love, or something that distracts us from praying and from loving. This Lent, rather than altering my eating (fasting is not required or recommended for people with medical needs, and my ED recovery is the priority), I am giving up television. Call it an experiment. I am hoping that I will free up some time for those practices that enliven and enrich my soul, like writing, reading, and just sitting quietly in contemplation. Oh, contemplation. The stillness and silence. It’s hard for me to slow down, and for 40 days, I will be receiving focused reminders about the importance of pausing for quiet reflection. Finally, almsgiving. There is no connection quite like the one forged through a true act of loving service. Pope Francis declared 2016 the Jubilee Year of Mercy. In this year of mercy, I want to open my heart to others and stretch myself to be vulnerable and generous, while exploring boundary-setting, which is an ongoing challenge for me.
So, there’s the plan. Set my heart on God, my center. Search him out wherever I can. Examine the parts of my life that lead me away from him. Work on acknowledging that yes, I am imperfect, just like everyone else. Practice receiving God’s perfect love and accepting his tender mercy… meaning I must forgive myself, too. Be open to offering love freely, however, wherever, and whenever I am called.
A brief note…
* Even though I am medically exempted from fasting, I still struggle to come to terms with the rationalizations and justifications used to endorse this spiritual practice. If you are reading this and are interested in why the church promotes fasting, you can learn more about it here. Fasting is NOT recommended for anyone with a medical condition that would be impacted by keeping a fast, which includes anyone who struggles with disordered eating.
Some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious ambiguity…
~ Gilda Radner
Well, it is the sixth of January, and my New Year’s resolutions are still fomenting. Perhaps, that isn’t such an awful thing for someone working to overcome an all-or-nothing outlook on the world. At my last E.D. group session my therapist reminded us, “Any moment can be the instant when you start over. You don’t need to wait until tomorrow, or the beginning of a new week. You don’t need to wait until your next meal. You can start over now. And now. And now.”
Begin anywhere. ~ John Cage
Even though I don’t need a New Year to set new goals, it is still a nice opportunity for a little personal reflection. I began that process well in advance of the New Year, but… one thing led to another, and you can read the rest of the story here.
There’s no arguing against the statement that I am impatient. And perfectionistic. Especially when it comes to my recovery, which at this point, is expanding to encompass this whole, messy metamorphosis of becoming. I’m a bit rigid, inflexible, and demanding when it comes to what I should be and when.
Nothing retards progress in a virtue so much as wanting to acquire it with too much haste!
~ St. Francis de Sales
These words of St. Francis de Sales sound so wise and sweet to my ears, but they just aren’t sinking into my stubborn, frustrated brain. Which is, itself, frustrating. How can I explain the dichotomy of my warring sides? I am partially stuck in the idea that there is an end-point to the process that I began when I entered recovery. I am operating under some notion that I am supposed to reach a stage of completion, or at least some state at which I am more complete, more balanced, more centered, more wholehearted, and living more authentically, genuinely, and vulnerably (i.e., more perfectly) than I am now. In direct opposition to this idea is the basic premise of my new value-system – there IS no final state. The authentic life is not static but is dynamic, because nothing ever stays the same. It is a life of continuous re-balancing, renewal, and re-centering. It requires ongoing becoming, and it won’t ever end until THE end. There is no such thing as perfect, and making myself vulnerable enough to be genuine and wholehearted means accepting all of my beautiful, eclectic, idiosyncratic, even dark and scary, imperfections.
Over the past few days, I am becoming alert to the pervasive and oppressive underlying monologue in my subconscious. On a continuously repeating loop, it broadcasts, “I am not good enough.” Sometimes, there are different iterations of this phrase. “I am not smart enough, tough enough, diligent enough, focused enough, hard-working enough. I don’t love enough. I’m not outgoing enough.” Underneath it all, though, the message is the same. “I am not enough.” Not yet. As in, the place I occupy right now, this person, this life, this self, this being, is not enough.
About a week before New Year’s Eve, I started compiling a list of the habits that would make me enough. My brainstorm mushroomed until it covered the surfaces of 11 (ELEVEN!) note sheets. Much of it was repetitive, but is it any wonder that I finally broke out in hives on December 31st?
So, I decided to take a break and let this whole resolution-making business settle down. After some kinder, gentler reflection, I was left with these goals for 2016:
ONE – Cultivate silence. Practice being comfortable with being quiet and still. I am a bit better at this than I used to be (although I think I was at my peak a year ago when I left Walden, and my skill eroded as the chaos of life gained momentum). These days, it remains exceedingly difficult for me to sit down and do nothing. No writing, no reading, no scheming or planning, no art, no talking, no television, phone, or computer, no chores… How am I supposed to find myself if I can’t even sit with myself? For me, meditation, contemplative prayer, and guided mindfulness practices are extremely beneficial, yet I never pause long enough to actual DO them! There is never enough time. There is always more that I “need” to accomplish. I am beginning to more consistently remind myself, “There will never be enough time to do everything that I want to do, and it always ends up working out anyway.” In 2016, I want to nurture a calm, peaceful, inner place where I am already enough, where there is nothing to prove, where I don’t need external validation, and where uncertainty and incompleteness are expected. From THAT place will blossom courage, love, empathy, and growth.
TWO – Practice bringing into my conscious awareness that nasty, undermining “I’m not enough” voice. If I can acknowledge and accept those thoughts when they occur, then I can eventually move toward changing the message and replacing the underlying core belief. As long as the tape is playing in my subconscious, however, or just beyond my active awareness, I think I may remain stuck.
THREE – While I’m chipping away at #2, continuing to wade through my emotions is probably in order. I am the queen of secondary and even tertiary emotions. I get mad about being anxious, and then I get even more mad and frustrated about the fact that I am mad over being anxious, because it means I’m not practicing acceptance. (Lost yet?) I also tend to use anger, self-righteousness/indignation, and defensiveness so that I don’t need to face uncertainty, admit that a situation is outside of my control and I must simply accept it, or block feelings of hurt/pain/injury/vulnerability. Becoming more self-aware of these patterns is not going to be easy. Why do I think that identifying my emotions and opening myself to experiencing them fully, without pushing them away, clinging to them, or judging them, may be a resolution that I make every year for the rest of my life?
FOUR – Try new things. New foods, new activities, new people, new experiences. Travel to new places. Do things that scare me, but that are going to help me become the person that I want to be. Stay connected to my old things. Invest in my relationships. Continue to write, to read, and to create. Allow that there will never be a perfect “balance.”
LAST AND ALWAYS – What am I to do when I fall short? What do I do when I’m not practicing self-awareness of my thoughts and emotions, when I am being mindless, when I am being critical of myself, when I am not spending time being quiet and still, when I am caving into the chaos around me and my extraordinary, self-imposed demands? What do I do when I am being reactive and when I am acting out of fear? A little mindfulness-based self-compassion may be in order. Accept myself as I am, accept the situation for what it is, and begin again.
Begin where you are. It would be unscientific to begin anywhere else.
On January 1st, 2015, I sat at a little writing desk in the brilliantly sun-lit, second-floor landing of my dear friend, Veronica’s house outside of Boston, weeping tears of joy and gratitude. The large Victorian was built in the mid-ninteenth century. How many people before me awoke to a new year under the shelter of its mansard roof? “Welcome hope! Welcome health! Welcome change and courage!” I wrote. “Welcome confidence! Welcome flexibility! Welcome forgiveness! Welcome love!” I was a mere six days away from concluding my six weeks of partial hospitalization for my eating disorder at Walden. Soon, I would drive the 800 miles to Vanillasville to re-enter life circumstances that I once considered unbearable but came to appreciate as less than ideal during those weeks.
“So long self-loathing, adios shame and guilt, toodles fear without faith. From now on, each ‘mistake’ is just another opportunity to learn so that I can go right on progressing. I will experience setbacks, not failures,” I continued. “I’m ready to move on! I’m leaving all my old baggage behind!”
The years before 2015 marked my progressive decline. My physical health finally failed in 2013, when I succumbed to an infection that my body simply could not fight off. I battled against it for nearly a year, and there were many times when I thought that I would never know wellness again. As I slipped deeper and deeper into despair, the most significant resolution that I made on New Year’s Day 2014 was to finally seek help from a mental health professional for my lifelong depression. I did not foresee that doing so would completely unravel what was left of my meticulous self-constructs. Before I could begin to rebuild, I needed to level the shoddy bastions and defilades that I lived within all my life, right down to their fractured and leaky foundations. Unpacking and disassembling the pieces of my past and present was the work of that year. It wasn’t a pretty process. It nearly killed me. I nearly killed myself. When the year began, my body was wracked and weakened by disease and malnutrition, and my mind and spirit were broken. By May, my doctor and I were finally desperate enough for a last ditch, relatively new procedure, which, miraculously, worked to treat my infection. At last, my body began to slowly heal. My mind was another matter. It took until November for me to hit my rock bottom psychologically. When that moment came, I found myself at Walden, terrified and on the brink of hopelessness. Then, bit by bit, I found myself at Walden, scared but struggling onward anyway, with growing hope and a glimmer of light glowing inside me.
In my writing from a year ago, there remained the underpinnings of my all-or-nothing thinking. (And it’s still present today). Obviously, I didn’t step out of 2014 and into 2015 as a radically altered person, with all of my “old baggage” in the past and only a future of self-compassion and wholeheartedness gleaming before me. Yet, I set very different resolutions for myself on that day. Upon reflection, I managed to live up to each one. I discovered it’s far easier to realize a goal when it is unmeasurable, non-specific, and flexible. I wanted to make recovery my #1 priority. Check. I wanted to socialize and to try group activities, such as an art class. My eating disorder kept me isolated for far too long. Check! It was extremely uncomfortable in the beginning. I felt anxiety bordering on panic during those initial painting classes, at my first few Bible study groups, and on many, many dinner occasions. Yet, I DID it anyway! “Work on growing even more mentally, emotionally, and physically healthy through reading, prayer, journaling, exercise, and ongoing group and individual therapy. Try to find a level of exercise that is comfortable for me and at which I can be consistent,” I wrote. Again, not easy. At times, downright horrifying. Yet, I DID it anyway!
It’s a work in progress.
As December 31st, 2015 approached, I looked forward to this New Year with eagerness and excitement. I spent several days journaling about how much I changed over the past year and contemplating my 2016 resolutions. One idea built upon another, and soon I was imagining what it would be like on New Year’s Eve. I pictured myself attending my usual Thursday evening eating disorder group, where I would complete perfect reflections, bringing the year to its full conclusion and opening the next with rounded balance. From there, I would join friends for dinner at a nearby restaurant. I envisioned myself in a shimmery dress, under twinkling lights, radiating beauty and effervescent with joy.
New Years’ Eve arrived at last. All was as anticipated. Then, at 5:15 pm, as I climbed the stairs to the bedroom to change clothes for the night, I broke out in hives.
I have an established history of stress urticaria and angioedema. It occurs much less frequently now than it once did, perhaps once or twice every few months, but sometimes it takes me by surprise. When it catches me off guard it is usually because I am deftly denying or negating that I am under any stress or anxiety until my body makes it impossible for me to ignore.
“Why am I putting so much pressure on myself?” I asked the face in the mirror. I didn’t want to wear an uncomfortable, constricting dress to dinner. It was 30 degrees out! The friend that I was meeting would probably be sporting a cardigan, and the restaurant where we booked reservations was far from elegant. I wanted to wear dark leggings and a sweater in which I could wrap myself up. I didn’t want to set a litany of resolutions. I wanted to keep the same simple resolutions that I made last year. I didn’t want the night to be special for its glamour and unique meaning. I wanted the night to be special for its simplicity. I abandoned the elaborate concoction of images that I created about what New Year’s Eve is supposed to be and popped some Benadryl. I pulled on a soft, new sweater with gold buttons on the shoulders that was a Christmas gift to myself and slid my feet into shearling-lined Birkenstocks. With my group, I sipped club soda and toasted New Year’s resolutions like, “To cultivating imperfection,” and “To loving-kindness for ourselves and others.” Afterward, I joined my friend for a late meal. I was back in my apartment and snuggled in bed long before any countdowns or fireworks.
This morning, I slept late and woke up feeling warm and rested. I laid under the covers, in the cocoon of my own heat, for a long while before I finally stirred. In the kitchen, I fixed a cup of tea and the same bowl of oatmeal that I eat on most mornings, and I jotted down in neat, block letters, “This is not a beginning. Nor is it an end. My life is fluid, ever shifting as I grow and become.” Here is to another year of becoming. Thank you for being with me on this journey.