Idiosyncratic Connections

Featured Image: “Rise and shine,” © Tjarko Busink (own work), Jun 2014. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

One afternoon, about a year ago, my division chief at the time popped into my office for a spontaneous chat. Michael was an unusual character and the only person to ever directly ask me what it was like to experience life with an eating disorder. Such baldness was fairly typical of his manner, and our little dialogues often diverged down rather unconventional paths. On this particular day, he was specifically interested in discerning my degree of spontaneity. Why? Your guess would be as good as mine, but apparently, it was a personality facet that was of explicit interest to him.

“Hi!” Michael announced in that stark and sudden way that always caught me slightly off guard. He seemed to appear in my office from an empty void of hallway outside. I smiled, assured him that he wasn’t interrupting anything important, and waited to discover what exactly it was that he wanted. “If I asked you to go camping this weekend, would you say yes?” he asked, without prelude.

“Ummmm… Nooo,” I replied, drawing out the vowels of my response with an inflection that was intended to convey just how entirely inappropriate I considered his question. “What the hell?” I thought.

“Why not?” he persisted, taking a seat across from my desk.

Staring at him with incredulity, I blinked, wondering which of the 3,000 reasons coming unbidden to my mind would be best to verbalize first. “Well, to begin, I hate camping,” I started. Why Michael continued in the mistaken belief that I was some sort of hiking, canoeing, snowshoeing, campfire cooking, outdoorsy, person, I could not understand. Multiple attempts to impress upon him my strong attachment to electricity, hot water, flush toilets, and soft bedding repeatedly fell on deaf ears. “In any case,” I continued, “you’re my boss.” Working under Michael’s supervision was one matter. Though some of his leadership decisions were a bit questionable, and his personality was a bit eccentric, he was an engaged and responsible chief. However, he was difficult to read, and he was not someone I would ever want to encounter outside of the workplace in a social atmosphere.

By his direct but indirect way of approaching a topic, he had yet to hint that the ulterior motive behind his wildly irregular query was one of determining just how adventurous I might be. “Well, you like to travel. What if I asked you to take a trip with me?” he asked. “What if I told you that the trip was all planned, tickets purchased, hotel reserved… would you go to, say Atlanta, with me this weekend?”

“No!” I exclaimed, quite scandalized. At that moment, I desired nothing more strongly than for him to depart my office immediately.

What did my face look like as I spat out my response? He seemed to finally catch onto my consternation, and he finally explained himself. “Ok,” I thought. “Weird, but ok. I’ll play along.” He rephrased his question, inquiring whether I would jet off with a friend under the same circumstances. “If it was someone I knew well,” I mused, “someone that I trusted, maybe someone I traveled with before, then yes, I think I might. It would need to be a very good friend though – someone who knew all my idiosyncrasies and whose idiosyncrasies were known to me. Then, I would truly trust her if she told me that all the details were already worked out.”

Even from Michael, I didn’t expect what came next. “Idiosyncrasies?” he asked. “What do you mean?”

A real friend doesn't judge when they find you sitting in the sink..
Cool Spot,” © wabisabi2015 (own work), Jul 2009. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

A real friend doesn’t judge you when she finds you sitting in the sink.

My puzzlement and amazement deepened. “What do you mean, ‘What do you mean?’” I countered redundantly. “My idiosyncrasies. You know, like my little personality quirks.” His expression was one of bewildered bemusement. “You know, like…” I racked my brain… “I prefer to shower at night, and I prefer to wake up early and go to sleep early. I don’t drink alcohol or soda, and I don’t like babies, or Mexican food, or most dogs. I really can’t stand cigarette smoke, and I go to church every Sunday, even when I’m traveling.” When put on the spot, it was difficult to quickly summon a list of idiosyncrasies that were appropriate for sharing with one’s boss. I certainly was not prepared to divulge any stories that might exemplify my more hard-to-tolerate eccentricities. My trustworthy travel companions were the people with whom I forged those tales. They understood me enough to never speak of eyeballs in my presence, they didn’t care what I looked like without makeup, and they didn’t mind if my feet smelled or if I snored when I was extra-congested. For my part, I didn’t particularly care what they looked like without makeup, either, or if their feet smelled, if they snored, or if they stole all the blankets when we bunked together in a room with only one queen. I didn’t mind if they wore socks with their Sperry’s, or if they washed their clothes in the bathroom sink of the hotel, or if they always burned the microwave popcorn.

Michael scrutinized me briefly before responding. “Oh. I suppose I never thought about that sort of thing,” he intoned. He tipped his head to one side, thoughtfully. “I would have to say that I don’t have any idiosyncrasies.” I nodded and smiled politely. I was pretty sure that I could help him identify one or two. He slapped his hands on his knees jovially and pushed off of the chair. “Well, have a great afternoon!” he bade me, vanishing from my doorway as cryptically as he appeared.

Blinking, I watched him disappear. As perplexed as I was by the exchange that just concluded, our conversation was directing my thoughts along a different tangent. Recalling numberless road trips, beach trips, Euro trips, and couch surfing expeditions spanning decades, I found myself swimming in delightful memories. I wasn’t recollecting perfect experiences, however. I cringed at reminiscences of my own foibles, and I smiled warmly at the patient tolerance of my friends. I grinned at their own unique peculiarities, and I laughed as I reflected on all the crazy, weird ways that the stress of the unexpected could manifest when our coping skills inevitably slipped. How blessed was I to be able to treasure those moments? How much did my life overflow with abundance to be loved and accepted by these trusted few and to be able to love and accept them in return?

“See everything; overlook a great deal; correct little.”

~ Saint Pope John XXIII

When my plane lifts off for Paris on May 19th, there will be no one waiting to meet me on the other side of the ocean. I frequently travel by myself for work purposes, sometimes living out of hotels for up to a month at a time, but my upcoming trip to France will be my first solo vacation. To claim that I don’t worry a bit about being lonely is a lie. What will it be like to stay in a foreign country par moi-même for seven whole days? I’m not sure. My nearest comparison was a two-day side-trip to München during a two-week sojourn in Germany, and I was very glad to return to Helene’s apartment in Stuttgart at the end of those 48 hours. Despite living on my own for over a decade, an underlying predisposition in my personality toward loneliness, isolation, self-pity, and melancholy tends to assert itself if I allow that to sprout and take root. If. The thing is, I am never alone. Wherever I go, I am known, and I am loved. With me, I carry all of the people I treasure in my heart. Inside of me, I contain every occasion we shared, great or small, exceptional or mundane. Deep down, in my center, there is a little nugget of God. Even when my vision is blurred by the sticky mire of loneliness, all it takes is a twinkle of grace to penetrate the muck of my soul, give my heart a bit of a polish, and remind me, once more, of all my beautiful connectedness and of the all-loving God who is holding me in his hand.

“To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything. It liberates us from pretense, humbles us out of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us for any difficulty life can throw at us.”

~ Timothy J. Keller

Misericordia

Featured Image: “Just a little yawn,” © Rob Hurson (own work), Jun 2015. CC BY-SA 2.0. (license)

Part of the human condition is that we all contain within us something abhorrent. (At least, that is what I’m telling myself.) At our deepest core is nestled a beautiful soul, God-given and graced, and we are capable of great goodness. Yet, none of us ever live up to all of our values all of the time. There is always a conflict under the surface. When everything is going well, when all the potential stressors in my life are minimized, I neglect this grimy underside of my human reality.

There are many monsters in my closet, and, though I may put on a good show of vulnerability and openness, I do not enjoy inviting them out for tea or cake. I prefer it when those monsters lie silently in the dark. When they are quiet and cooperative, they allow me to narrate a promising story of self-improvement and growth that is colorful and filled with light. When my world becomes more chaotic, it is increasingly impossible to maintain this illusion. As the veneer of my carefully constructed, idealized self displays its true fragility, those demons emerge to help me cope. They bare their teeth and unsheathe their claws, gnashing their jaws against the suggestion that my life is not rhythmic, predictable, balanced, and fair. When other people, the world, and extraneous circumstances exert their force on me, I fight back. My monsters include Non-acceptance, Unwillingness, Defiance, Self-Righteousness, Blame, and Anger. They serve me well. They are quick to leap to the defense of Order, Control, Obedience, Rules, Self-Sufficiency, and Safety.

wild-things
where the wild things are,” by Jonahliza Eliger, Nov 2008. CC BY 2.0. (license)

One week last October, I fell back into a self-protective, self-defensive mode of reacting as the burden and pace of work demands mushroomed. I was confronted with a sharp incongruence between conflicting priorities. In my recovering perfectionism, I was still striving to understand my identity apart from my professional life. I was messily attempting to establish boundaries with myself and with others in order to create the space and silence that I needed to explore and preserve my authenticity, and I recoiled against any unanticipated demand on my time or attention. My constant inner monologue was a noisy place of overlapping ultimatums and thinly veiled threats. One word was dominant as I attempted to respond simultaneously to all of the mixed messages I was sending myself:  Should. Sometimes, it was expressed as “must,” or “need to” in the intensity of my strict expectations. “I should be able to run these tests myself. I need to finish these reports by the end of the day. I should NOT stay late. I must go to the gym on Tuesday, and I should still go to church after work. I should swim on Wednesday. There should not be so much to do. I should not be so angry. These reviews should not take so long.”

With little flexibility for myself, I afforded even less consideration to the experiences of others. I was wrapped-up in a rather narcissistic, self-tortured vortex that I created of my own volition simply from the refusal to concede that my standards were impossible. I started to lash out at the very people who cared about me the most, my closest friends at work. My mutually exclusive expectations were colliding with the incontrovertible physics of reality, and in my over-functioning state, the more overwhelmed I felt, the more I piled onto my unending “to-do” list. My fangs were bared. My claws were out. Obviously, I was bearing an unequitable share of the burden. Just as always. Plainly, I was being unfairly treated. When others “failed” me, when I failed myself, Non-acceptance, Unwillingness, Defiance, Self-Righteousness, Blame, and Anger were there to pick up my shattered ego and carry me onward.

Recognizing that I was not behaving in a manner congruent with who I wanted to be, I only stumbled deeper into anger. Hating myself in my blindness, I knew that I was being unreasonable and irrational, but I couldn’t see clearly. I was blinded by the acrid smoke of my own emotions. This cycle continued for four tiresome days. It was tiresome for me, and tiresome for all those around me who endured my moodiness, irritability, and cartwheeling temper. Finally, my friend Steve had enough. I just finished saying something particularly biting and acerbic to him, who was my closest confidant at work, and turned on my heel to storm off. “Now hang on!” he called after me. “Come back here, and close the door!” I knew that I was in for it, and I deserved it, but rather than a severe reprimand, which really wasn’t his style, he met me with a patience that I didn’t deserve. “You’ve been pushing back a bit hard lately, don’t you think?” I hung my head in shame and embarrassment. He acknowledged the pressure that I was under but also observed of my behavior, “It’s a bit much, don’t you think? We’re your friends. We’re on your side!” Sulkily, I offered a shallow apology and slinked back to my office. Instead of barring my fangs, I was licking my wounds.

It was another 24 hours before I apologized in a more meaningful way. It was late on Friday, and I was headed off to yet another out of state conference the next morning. I didn’t want to get on a plane with the sour taste of my own bitterness still in my mouth, but when I went to find Steve before I left for the day, he was caught up in meetings with the administration across the hall. As I packed, I was still sucking on the acidic aftertaste that lingers with the knowledge that I inflicted pain on others in order to diffuse my own discomfort. Finally, I phoned Steve under the auspices of discussing some final bit of work business before I departed for a week. At last, after chatting for two minutes about that mundane subject, I meekly voiced an admission of my truly inexcusable conduct of the preceding days.

In the end, I was filled with gratitude and was left amazed and bewildered by the extremity of the grace I experienced. I did not deserve forgiveness. In recent memory, I could not recall carrying on so wretchedly for such a prolonged period of time, with such disdain for others. I treated them as means to my ends, stripping them of their inherent dignity and worth from my self-righteous, self-defensive perspective. My friend possessed the empathy to hold me accountable for my behavior without responding to me in kind. When I offered my somewhat useless apology, expressing that there were no justifications or explanations that could make what I did “all right,” he replied only with understanding and compassion. As I hung up the phone, I wracked my brain to recall a time I was ever treated so charitably. There was no further admonition, no lecture, no conveyance of a lesson, only pardon and peace. I started to cry. “Oh God,” I prayed, “Is this what it feels like when you forgive us?”

“A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter;

he who finds one finds a treasure.

A faithful friend is beyond price,

no sum can balance his worth.

A faithful friend is a lifesaving remedy;

such as he who fears God finds.

For he who fears God behaves accordingly,

and his friend will be like himself.”

~ Sirach 6:14-17

sulky-wild-thing
Sulky wild thing,” © louiscrusoe (own work), Feb 2012. CC BY-SA 2.0. (license)

It’s Christmas… Once Again…

Featured Image:  “Crossroads,” © Carsten Tolkmit (own work), Jul 2011. CC BY-SA 2.0. (license)

Midway along the journey of our life

I woke to find myself in a dark wood,

for I had wandered off from the straight path.

How hard it is to tell what it was like,

this wood of wilderness, savage and stubborn

(the thought of it brings back all my old fears),

a bitter place! Death could scarce be bitterer.

But if I would show the good that came of it

I must talk about things other than the good.

 ~ Dante, “The Divine Comedy,” Inferno I, 1-9

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.”

~ Steve Prefontaine

adventures-in-averell
Week 27: Adventures in Averell,” © Alexandria Lentz (own work), Jul 2011. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

Hyperkinesis

Featured Image:  “Merry-go-round,” © Tony Goulding (own work), Nov 2005. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

According to science, true perpetual motion is not possible. Those physicists at MIT never met me…

When I was in college, I was in awe of my friends who could sit in near cataplexy for hours upon hours, deep in focused concentration, with towers of books, sheaves of paper, assortments of pencils, pens, and colorful highlighters, and discarded coffee cups piled about them. There were a multitude of cozy, quiet, beautiful little nooks and crannies across our centuries-old campus where a person could nestle away for days of endless study. Yet, within an hour or so of burrowing down into the catacombs of the library stacks or snuggling up beside the massive fireplace in the periodicals room, a stirring would begin to creep through my body. It declared to me, “You’re a failure, you can’t hack it, you’re not as good as the rest, and there is clearly and obviously something abnormal about you, because you can’t sit still for two bloody hours! For crying out loud! GET BACK TO WORK!

As the clock on the wall continued its tortuous march, the thoughts in my head continued their annoying chatter, filling my mind with fantasies of restroom breaks, the weather, chocolate covered pretzels from the lobby shop in the student center, friends from home, shopping, movies that I loved, movies that I wanted to see, the parties that I wasn’t attending and the life that I wasn’t living while I was slaving over my textbooks day after day, all of my shortcomings and failures, the birds outside the window, my next vacation, anxieties about the future, regrets about the past, curiosities about what every person I knew was doing at that very moment, coupled with assumptions that they were all thriving, self-criticism of my sloppy appearance in my standard study-garb of t-shirt and sweatpants… This cyclic, often distorted stream of consciousness was accompanied by a twitchy, restless energy. There was a kinetic force that just wanted to be released. “Make it go away!” was the subconscious message I sent myself, though my executive center screamed, “Everyone else is working hard! What is wrong with you? Why can’t you sit still?!” (Self-compassion was never one of my strengths.)

If you knew Alice or Margie, you could ask them what it was like to live with me during final exam week. When there was no other outlet for that nervous, impatient, distressing dynamism that flooded my body and irritated my brain, I took up the habit of pacing the countertop of our kitchen peninsula. Sometimes, I stood on tables while I recited biochemical reactions from memory or they quizzed me from my flashcards of Latin declensions. Food offered a release, a distraction, an escape, and a comfort. Everyone needed to eat. I awaited mealtimes with apprehensive eagerness, because they provided a legitimized reason to leave my desk for an hour or so. Self-soothing and escaping difficult emotions by eating when I was not hungry or over-eating were maladaptive coping skills that I already carried with me from my earliest childhood.

A few weeks ago, I was tucked into a corner of my therapist’s couch, recounting a more recent experience of that same intense urgency, which arose during a stressful and busy time at work. When my therapist asked me to describe what I meant, I was ready with a catalog of adjectives. Skittery, jittery, tense, and intense. Fluttery, high-strung, and hyperactive. Agitated, frenzied, and disquieted. Discombobulated. She asked me if this state was always necessarily negative, and her question left me confused. Clearly, I was not using my words effectually. Of course it was negative! When I was caught up in this crazy spiral, I felt like my heart might explode, like electricity was running through my body, like I was literally a live-wire. It was confusing, disorienting, uncomfortable, and distressing, and the result was that I became inefficient and ineffective. All I could think about was making it stop and turning it off. Without binging, there was no physical release. I was left to tolerate the intolerable with coping skills like deep breathing, which felt like whispering into a tornado.

My therapist pressed a bit further, challenging my negative associations. Where did I learn that feeling hyperactive, confused, disoriented, and electric were bad? Could those same adjectives also describe excitement? What about exuberance, joy, enthusiasm, and positive energy? Then, she suggested something else that I wasn’t ready to hear. What if I was born with a more restless temperament? What if I simply wasn’t created to sit still for eight or ten hours at a stretch? After decades of comparing myself to others, could I accept myself as I was? What if the fact that I was not the sort to sit still and quiet for very long didn’t mean that I was broken, or a failure, or dysfunctional, or bad, or deficient, or weak-willed?

Oh, to know peace and rest in my body and my mind! To simply stop moving and thinking! How I yearn for such stasis! To be able to pass an afternoon with reading, meditation, writing, drawing, or painting seems like it would be bliss, but within fifteen minutes (sometimes more, sometimes less) of sitting down, I am up again. Maybe my rejection of my restlessness and my easy distractibility is what amplifies the intolerability of the urge to move. I attempt to fix the “problem” by eliminating every possible distraction before I try to find my calm, but the chores never end, and the to-do list only grows longer.

We spoke about ways that I might find more of a forgiving cadence in my day by building in more frequent, shorter breaks, interspersed with shorter periods of work. Perhaps the combination of quietness and movement is what I need, finding a rhythmic flow between work and restorative reflection. My current patterns will be hard to break, but I am hopeful, because I see the potential for more peace and less burnout. With repeated effort, this could be another step toward relaxing my rigid standards and reducing my self-criticism. Perhaps one of the reasons I enjoy yoga so much is the unity of movement and stillness. Now, if I could only bring my practice off of the mat and into my life.

yoga
yoga,” © Bär Baer (own work), Nov 2014. CC BY 2.0. (license)

 

The Perennial Party Problem

Featured Image: “Eyjafjallajökull Eruption,” © Söring, May 2010. CC BY-NC 2.0.

As I begin to type, I’m sitting in my office, back arched away from my desk chair, shoulders pulled angrily up to my ears, forehead creased, mouth taught and frowning. There are five minutes until I need to walk across the hall for the daily 9am meeting, but my fingers are slamming the keys. If I can just put a few words on the page, maybe the hostility that’s seething inside of me won’t continue to consume me like a pyroclastic cloud, burning me up from the inside-out.

WHY am I so upset? What exactly is it that is compelling me to both lash out and to self-destruct. I can feel the forces of my anger directed simultaneously outward and inward. I want to scream at my co-workers, then grasp the mug that sits between me and the keyboard, in which steeps my steaming green tea, usually such a tranquil focal point, and fling it at the wall. I imagine the ceramic shattering into huge chunks and bits of powder with a satisfying jolt and crash followed by a tinkling rain. I want to punish myself. What’s going on? I realize that this reaction, now probably temporary, is the state that I once lived in nearly every day. Today, just under the surface, if I peel back a hastily applied, too-shiny shellac that barely obscures all my thoughts and feelings, there is a running list of my mistakes. Screw the Powerball. I will put my money on the underlying message that is playing on the tape reel in my head. Consciously, I’m deaf to it right now, but if I stop long enough to listen, I bet I will discover it repeating some version of, “I suck,” right now.

Ok. Meeting time. Good vent.

Narrow Passage
Narrow Passage,” © Marc Soller, Feb 2010. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

There’s something about the combination of sitting in a quiet meeting room, meditating on my breath and the tone of the voices filling the air, a blank page, and Yo-Yo Ma that is intensely therapeutic. Here it goes… Time to scrape at the layers.

Before I begin to write, I want to take a moment to be grateful. I’m grateful for a private office, where I can close my door, pump up the volume of Ma’s sweet sounding cello, and pause. I am grateful that I work in a place where this moment of introspection is possible. It doesn’t happen every day, but more often than not, if I need a bit of time for reflection, I can find the space. I know that I will be much more effective (and much more pleasant) if I can process whatever is going on between my heart and my head in this moment. If I continue to press on, then I am at risk of acting out. I’m grateful for this insight.

Getting down to the matter at hand, here is how I’m feeling. Defensive. Angry. Vulnerable. Not in control.

Exposed. Imprisoned. Captive. Trapped. Like a caged animal, I am ready to scratch the eyes out of anyone who comes near me or chew off my own arm to get away.

There is an obstacle in my immediate future that I cannot escape. Two obstacles, actually. Two work parties. On Thursday, some of my co-workers are throwing a “diaper party,” which is apparently an alternative to a baby shower, except all the gifts are diapers of various types and sizes, for one of our officemates. His wife is expecting their first child later this month, and I get it. A baby shower for a close colleague is one of those events like a birthday or Christmas, and while I’m not excited about navigating the food situation at work, I am supportive of the occasion and am excited for my friend. I’m not burning up over the diaper party.

But I am reeling about the barbecue banquet that is being planned for the following week. As a reward for winning the inter-office holiday decorating competition, our department chair is throwing us a celebratory lunch. The group-wide email soliciting input about date and type of food to serve is currently circulating through the “reply-all” channels.

Why are we so uncreative as a society that we continue to use food as both reward and punishment? Why can’t we be rewarded with a few hours off to go bowling as a team (there’s an alley close to our office), or brainstorm some other fun activity that we might all enjoy? I am not eager to attend another office lunch where my colleagues can demonstrate their individualized disordered eating patterns (either binging or restricting), while seeking external validation in the form of baiting others with comments about the new diet they plan on starting, their juice cleanse, new work-out routine, or, worse, observations about what other people are eating, how others look, or how much others exercise. I am often the object of many of these “others” comments. So… yeah. I tend to loathe forced socialization with my co-workers, and I especially abhor mandatory fun with food. Outside of these events and these conversations, my colleagues are wonderful, amazing, astounding people. They are kind, generous, well-meaning, funny, intelligent… I can go on and on. I even enjoy getting together with them outside of the office from time to time. Oblige me to sit in a windowless conference room with them and eat, though, and they are the enemy.

The seething is already starting to recede. I realize that I have a choice – continue along this path of AVERSION and WILLFULNESS, or search for an alternative way. What is the alternative? Is there more than one other choice?

Step one – Recognize that I am experiencing a strong emotional reaction. Identify when I am triggered.

Check. Definitely, definitely check.

Step two – Explore.

Well… isn’t that what I’m essentially doing right now? Here I am, sharing my explorations with the world, if the world cares to read them. It feels like groping through a bucket of opaque bile, searching for a nugget of gold.

Step three – Choose differently.

Crater Lake
Crater Lake,” © Andy Spearing, Aug 2008. CC BY 2.0.

Ugh. This is the hard part. My co-workers are good people. They are not malicious. They are caring, thoughtful, loving, and compassionate. From the number of emails flooding my inbox, I can tell that they are very excited for this celebratory barbecue lunch. They are almost more excited to join together for a few hours of fast-food pulled pork than they were for their festive “Star Wars Christmas” scheme, which was, believe me, quite elaborate. They deserve this win. This party isn’t about me, and it isn’t about my eating disorder. It isn’t personal. I still take issue with the “food as reward” approach, but my perspective and background on that matter is unique.

What am I going to do? Well, I am going to need to be OK with the uncertainty of not knowing what will happen or how I will react on the actual day of the lunch.

In the meantime, I dug deep (as Brené Brown might say), and instead of lashing out in bitterness and resentment, I called upon humor. Gratefully, it was accessible in my hour of need. My supervisor and I were joking about the terrible road conditions on the drive into work this morning (it was snowing pretty heavily during the AM commute), and I noticed that our banter was actually discharging some of my pent-up aggression. I felt the tension in my body slackening. Interesting, I thought. John knows about my history of an eating disorder, so without too much planning, I dove in. “Hey,” I started jovially, “I conscientiously object to using food as a reward. I vote that you guys throw your party on Tuesday so that I won’t be here and I won’t have to go.” Tuesday was one of the days initially proposed, and it also happened to be the afternoon of my weekly, standing appointment with my therapist. My words were light and my face was laughing, but my meaning was serious.

He smiled thoughtfully, gazing up and to the right in that honest, innocent way that people do when they are contemplating. “Oh yeah, I guess it is using food as a reward,” reflected the father of five. “Ok!” he agreed with a grin.

From the email traffic, it seems that everyone else is onboard with the plan for Tuesday, and some of my distress is alleviated. I am taking a (tiny) stand on an issue that is important to my values, without making too much of a fuss, and I am confident that I will navigate next Tuesday skillfully. In the meantime, I will keep trying to explore as I keep trying to cultivate ACCEPTANCE, WILLINGNESS, and COMPASSION, for myself and others.

Crater Lake OR
Crater Lake, OR” © Jonathan Miske, Aug 2014. CC BY-SA 2.0.

The Day the Wall Came Down

Featured Image:  “Remains of the Berlin Wall,” by Joe deSousa, Jul 2012. Public domain, CC0 1.0.

*Note to the reader: Names have been changed. Despite the allusion to the contrary below, I am not, in fact, on a first name basis with my boss.

The Scene: A non-descript hallway in a non-descript office building. Poorly engineered overhead lighting does little to improve the appearance of the grayish, scuffed walls and beige, linoleum tile floor. Lulu exits the women’s restroom, and a slight man of about 45, with thinning brown hair and a tanned, lined face approaches from behind.

Michael*: Hey! I was just on my way to see you in your office. (A subtle emphasis is placed on the words, “in your office.” It is almost imperceptible.)

Lulu: (Thinking to self: “This can’t be anything good. Why does he need to talk to me in my office? Ok, wait, it doesn’t necessarily have to be bad. I will try to avoid jumping to conclusions.” She laughs nervously.) Oh, really?

Together, they walk toward another hallway, which intersects the first at a right angle, and Lulu opens a heavy, unmarked door. Michael follows behind as Lulu passes into a wider office space filled with cubicles. They pass a row of cubicles,  toward another open door. Warmer, welcoming light streams from the entryway. As they approach, the soft, muted tones of Enya can be heard playing in the background.

Michael: Yeah, you know. It’s been awhile since I talked to you!

Lulu: Perplexed. Sounding innocent. Since Friday?

Michael: Yeah, well, you know. Three days! What’s been going on? That’s nice music!

Lulu: (Trying to hide embarrassment that she listens to Enya in her office. Makes a soft, chuckling, choking sound.) Yeah, it’s my after lunch, chill-out music. Um, things are pretty much the same.

They cross the threshold into Lulu’s office, which is richly decorated with a Tiffany lamp and an area rug patterned in gray and gold that complements the tones in the glass. An elegant table runner drapes over the top of a low bookshelf, forming a perfect surface for a rose-colored, ceramic pot of pink flowers, a decorative teacup, and a picture frame. A plaque that reads, “Believe – v. to have confidence or faith in the truth of,” sits next to the pot. A map of the world hangs on the wall above, and the remaining walls are covered in diplomas and certificates framed in heavy, dark wood. Lulu quickly maneuvers behind the desk and propels herself into the security of her familiar chair, while Michael more cautiously seats himself in a straight-backed chair opposite her. Michael leans back, picks up one foot, and places it on the other knee, allowing his leg to flop to the side casually. Lulu props her elbows on her armrests and tents her hands under her chin, lips pinched, leaning forward.

Michael: So, I was just wondering, you know, if it’s not too much to ask, and only if you’re comfortable, I don’t want to put you on the spot or anything, but would you tell me what it’s like to have an eating disorder, you know, from your personal experience. (He drags out the world “personal” emphatically.)

Pause….

Michael: You know, if you’re comfortable. I don’t want to put you on the spot or anything. I just, I mean, you’re the only person I ever met with an eating disorder. I mean… what’s it LIKE?

Pause…

Lulu: (Thinking to self: “WHAT… THE… … … … ?”)

Pause…

Lulu: (Thinking to self: “Did the director of my division seriously just ask me to share my personal experience with binge eating disorder? Um… How is this going to factor into my performance stratification?”) Um. What?

Michael: You know, you just seem so open, otherwise I wouldn’t ask. You just seem like such an open person. (He repeatedly stresses the word “open.”)

Lulu: (Thinking to self: “Well, he certainly has guts… Is my mouth hanging open? I think my mouth is hanging open.”)

Michael: You know, we were talking last week, and I realized that I don’t really know anything about eating disorders. I mean, I’d like to understand better what it’s like for you.

Lulu: (Thinking to self: “Geez. Well, I’m the one who is always saying that I want to increase awareness and break down stigma… I just didn’t think it would be with the head of my division.”) Well… what do you want to know?

Untitled,” © Kyle Cheung, June 2011. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Can you imagine my shock, mingled with horror, mingled with speechlessness, when the above occurred just before Halloween? We ended up speaking for an hour! Historically, my division chief and I did not have the most open relationship, to use his adjective. It wasn’t as though I thought that he meant me any harm. I believed him to be very well meaning, but I also found interacting with him feel forced and awkward. However, our mutual courage to be a little bit vulnerable might just be leading us both to an improved understanding, to borrow from one of my favorite authors/researchers/storytellers, Brené Brown.

On the subject of Brené Brown… as my division chief and I were chatting again last week (about the dicey topic of my future professional plans – dicey because I don’t have any at the present moment, which is not something I am eager to confess to my career-focused boss), he interjected with, “Hey, do you like TED talks? Have you seen these TED talks by this woman Brené Brown on shame and vulnerability?”

My reaction was essentially to think, “How the fudge do you know about Brené Brown?” Except I didn’t think the word, “fudge.” Fortunately, what actually came out of my mouth was something to the effect of, “I would pretty much attribute my success in recovery to discovering her work. They made us watch her video on vulnerability, and then I read her book, The Gifts of Imperfection while I was at Walden, and it was a definite turning point.” I didn’t go into how research demonstrates that it is critical in establishing and sustaining eating disorder recovery for a sufferer to be able to learn self-compassion. We needed something to talk about the next time we chat! But, prior to Brené Brown, I didn’t know what vulnerability, shame, and self-compassion meant. (There are more resources about self-compassion and ED recovery on my favorites page).

I’m pretty sure Michael didn’t realize just how much of a compliment he was paying me when he told me that I seemed to practice the appropriate degree of vulnerability that Dr. Brown discussed during her TED talk. He confessed that, despite watching the videos several times, he struggled to fully understand exactly how and why vulnerability was necessary for establishing human connection, and why connection was necessary for leading a wholehearted life (he admitted that he was stuck on the “necessary” bit). “Would you mind going over them with me?” he asked. “I think I can find the transcripts online,” he continued. “It might be helpful if I could highlight them, and I could write down some questions. I think I would understand it better if I could discuss it with you.”

The transcripts arrived in my email inbox the next day. I’m looking forward to our next conversation.

"Kaffee für zwei," © Marco Huber, Aug 2013. CC BY-ND 2.0.
Kaffee für zwei,” © Marco Huber, Aug 2013. CC BY-ND 2.0.

The Potluck Lot

One of the recurrent themes that I seem to return to with great frequency is my aversion to the preponderance of food in my workplace. I feel as though I live in a varying state of dudgeon over what I interpret as the unconscious perpetuation by those around me of the insidious and reprehensibly unhealthy values surrounding food, exercise, and body image that are so deeply ingrained in our culture. My righteous indignation stirs into a fiery fervor whenever the “Naughty or Nice Cart” rolls through my hallway. I feel like a zealot on a one-woman crusade against the political, media, and industry-fueled machine that drives perversions of what is considered “healthy” in our society. Sometimes, I wish that I could just shout, “Wake up! Wake up, people! Don’t you realize what is going on here?!” After so much cognitive behavioral work, so much practicing at identifying my distorted, all-or-nothing, black-and-white thoughts and then replacing those thoughts with more reasonable, appropriate, rational versions, I might be better at recognizing the pattern of extremism and alarm underlying my ruminations.

Yet, I still find myself sucked into a vortex of vilification and catastrophization on a not-irregular frequency. Why is it so difficult to just LET GO. Is the situation as tectonic as I paint it through my choice of language and the story that I construct in my mind? I am so sensitized to these issues due to my personal history that it is impossible for me to approach the problem from an unbiased, objective perspective. A frequent topic of conversation at my weekly therapy appointments is trying to decide just when to speak up and when to simply ACCEPT that I do not control the actions, opinions, behaviors, or beliefs of others. Can I acknowledge that, though I have a unique insight, I am not an expert, and I am not always right? Can I “choose my battles,” so to speak? Can I WILLINGLY tolerate the off-hand comments, insensitive remarks, and the possibly uneducated or uninformed, but not necessarily ill-intentioned, activities around me? I CAN… but it takes practice. And more practice. And more practice. And more and more and more and more practice.

My latest distress revolved around an office potluck-staff meeting. I wanted to characterize my workplace as evil and my co-workers as criminal because we must hold a potluck at every quarterly staff meeting… However, I ruefully acquiesced that the focus on food did not, of itself, make the environment hellish or the people wicked. In fact, I admitted to myself, a shared meal can be a very healthy activity! It builds bonds of connection and can be an expression of love, friendship, and joy. Unfortunately, in my personal experience as someone with binge eating disorder, these large-scale potlucks are too often derailed by eating just for the physical pleasure of consuming food, which shortly loses its pleasing effect. The sanctity of the meal is lost. The gratitude for nourishment and fellowship and the serenity that would follow from that sense of fulfillment erodes away when satiety is exceeded, the sugar crash sets in, and I begin lambasting myself for being such a fat, stupid, worthless cow in the privacy of my inner mind. I can’t speak for others, but I wonder if this is not a somewhat shared experience. Do we joke about how overly stuffed we are, the number of calories we just consumed, how many hours at the gym it will take to burn off our excesses, or the number of pounds we just gained in order to normalize, rationalize, and justify? Again, how can I expect to be objective? Sometimes, it seems that attention is purposely diverted to others in a scapegoating fashion. At the last office potluck-staff meeting, I listened in shocked horror as two colleagues made some of the most demeaning, dehumanizing “fat jokes” I could recall hearing since riding the school bus as a teenager. When I objected, one of the men laughed and stated, “It’s OK, because they’re fat. They deserve it. If they didn’t want to be made fun of, they wouldn’t be fat.” Appalled, I decided this was one of those situations I wasn’t going to be able to change (though I did speak to the supervisor later about the inappropriateness of those comments).

Perhaps it was this past experience that aroused so much discomfort and resentment in me as the day of the potluck approached. Recollections of previous struggles at similar office events were also, undoubtedly, contributing factors. Would this potluck-staff meeting be anything like those affairs? When I considered the looming occasion, words such as “awful,” “horrible,” “sucks,” “crap,” “problem,” “failure,” and “disaster,” sprang forward. Alternatives such as, “less than ideal,” “it is what it is,” “imperfect,” “opportunity,” “challenge,” “doable,” “growth,” and “surmountable,” were much less accessible to me. When I was able to string together a “rational response” to a doomful prediction, the thought was ephemeral, vaporizing almost as soon as it was conceptualized, while my negativity lingered.

On the day of the potluck, I summoned my courage and my coping skills. It wasn’t graceful. I always have this image of myself navigating distressing situations with perfect equanimity. Of course, using that ideal as my standard, I felt shamefully dejected. Fortunately, the wonderful supports to whom I reached out possessed the clarity and insight to point out that such a model is entirely unrealistic, and I was able to listen. Once I started admitting my small successes, it became increasingly easier to see the multitude of ways in which I did remarkably well under less than ideal circumstances that were beyond my control. My brain is expertly trained to instantly find the fault, the critique, the thing to improve upon. What I discovered following the potluck, or perhaps just stumbled upon again, is the need to preferentially look for my positives. My good qualities. My strengths.

So… these are my goals today. 1) Practice willing acceptance. Again. And again. And again. 2) Look for my positives. I hope you all can see your positives today, too!

"Hawaiian Sunrise 09," by Tamugreg, [Public Domain], May 2009. Wikimedia Commons.
“Hawaiian Sunrise 09,” by Tamugreg, [Public Domain], May 2009. Wikimedia Commons.
Featured Image Credit: “Ceremonial,” © NAEINSUN, CC-BY-SA 3.0, Feb 2008. Wikimedia Commons.