Loving My Body

Every Thursday evening, whenever I’m in town and not traveling, I attend a therapy group for people who suffer from eating disorders and distorted body image. Though I am surrounded by the support and love of innumerable family, friends, colleagues, and caring professionals, something unnerving and soul-wrenching happens when I am among others who know firsthand what it is like to live with this illness. When they speak, it is as if their words are my own. To know that I am not alone because my family and friends are always with me is comforting. But, to know that I am not alone because there are other people who understand… that is heart-breaking, mind-bending, and ultimately, healing. I am not so deranged that another human being can’t comprehend the parts of me that are most disturbed and irrational.

At the present moment, there are eight of us. Each of us is in a different place along our journeys. Some are actively working on their recovery. Some are still in the pre-contemplative or contemplative stages of change. To each other, we bring our struggles, daily experiences, and inner turmoil. Though the specific symptoms and behaviors of our eating disorders differ, a degree of body dysmorphia is something that we all share in common. It’s not that any of us suffer from body dysmorphic disorder, but when we look in the mirror, our brains have a way of distorting the image.

Within the safety of this familiar, little band, I stumbled into a startling discovery last week. As I listened quietly, one after another of these women, my friends, expressed their deep loathing of their bodies. It was painful to hear, and I was filled with empathy and sorrow. Yet, another emotion gripped me, which could best be described as excited gratitude. The meeting was drawing to a close. Unable to contain this perplexingly intense sensation, I wrapped my arms around myself squeezing my eyes tightly shut. An impish grin broke across my face, and I lifted my feet off the floor, stretching my legs out directly in front of me energetically as I declared, “I love my body!”

Part of me felt guilt for exhibiting such jubilation in the midst of so much suffering, but I couldn’t let the last word of that night be one of disparagement. As we departed, I meditated more deeply on these thoughts that were suddenly springing up inside of me. What I found was that…

I love the face that peers at me from the tiny square of bathroom mirror. A bit of makeup artfully conceals the acne scars and the red blotches. A little blush lights up my pale, monochromatic cheeks. I love my sparkling, hazel eyes, which appear to change shades depending on the color of the clothes I wear. I love my straight, pearly teeth and my even smile. My parents paid a lot of money in orthodontists’ bills so that I could share this smile with the world! I love my chin, which doesn’t recede and doesn’t protrude, but is perfect for my face. Just like my nose. I love my thick, auburn hair, the fineness of each strand, and its irremediable straightness.

I love being short! I fit into so many small places and tight spaces. It doesn’t even bother me that I can never reach the tops of high shelves. That’s why there are stools and tall people in the world. I love my petite hands and the writing bump on my right third finger. I love my feet and all the callouses that cover them. They tell the story of my life. After all the miles, all the experiences, all the long days and long nights of thankless work, the high and low adventures, and all the injuries, my feet remind me that I am resilient. And they remind me that I am not invincible. They invite me to take care of myself and to rest when I need it. My feet remind me to push my boundaries, and to know my limits. They remind me to accept what is, and to do what is needed. Oh, do I love my feet!

There are a few aspects of my body that I am learning to simply accept, like the chunk that is missing from my left eyebrow where I underwent a skin biopsy, and the unsightly acne that still peppers my face, chest, and back, even in my 30’s. I accept my aches and pains, my knotted muscles, and my chronic TMJ. Ultimately, I accept that my body is changing. The lines of my face are creeping and multiplying, their creases deepening. Here and there, I catch the glimmer of a silver strand of hair. The scattered, purple, spider veins that are barely visible on my thighs will one day spread into a dark, violaceous network to cover my legs, just like all the other women in my family. My weight may even (gasp) fluctuate. That last one is still the hardest for me to accept, yet it is the truth, and it is natural. It is just part of this experience of living. Because, in the final equation, my body serves a purpose. It is the temple of my soul. It is the vessel that carries me through this world. It enables me to do a great many things, though I remind myself that one day, it will fail. My faith tells me that I am wonderfully made. My faith also tells me not to be overly attached to my body, at least not as it is today, and not to idealize any physical standard of perfection. There is more to life, and death, and the life to come than can be contained in this organic being.

Perhaps my brain is changing, too. Perhaps, I’m rewiring, making new and different connections, overwriting the old, automatic, maladaptive signaling pathways. How did I move from waging a war of submission against my body to harboring this intense desire to hug myself in a giant, bearlike embrace? When did this shift happen? I’m not sure, but I like these feelings.

What do you love about your body?

Toes

The Perfection Deception

Featured Image: “WAITING,” © Kai Schaper (own work), May 2013. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

At the moment, I am soaring over the North American continent, contentedly perched in the aisle seat of an exit row, directly over the wing. There is a hot cup of freshly-brewed, dark roast positioned on the floor. I wiggle my toes in my leather, Birkenstock thongs as I stretch out my petite legs, reach down to grab my coffee, and savor a long pull.

At this point in my life, I am an airline-traveling pro. My frequent visits home find me navigating the friendly skies at least once a month, and that doesn’t include my trips for work. Before I became very sick, I was even a semi-regular international traveler, though I have yet to overcome my lingering trepidation to venture abroad in recovery. There is a distinct separation, not only in time but in my being, between the traveling that I did before I began treatment for my eating disorder and my post-Walden adventures.

After leaving partial hospitalization and hesitantly, precariously, fearfully, re-entering the world beyond the structure of the program, I found that traveling was not easy for me. In fact, I found that traveling was never particularly easy for me. I always tended toward a more anxious, easily agitated temperament. Disruptions to my routine, removal from my comfortable and predictable surroundings, and the introduction of a host of unknown variables tipped my equilibrium, but I didn’t possess the self-awareness to recognize my emotions. Before I undertook treatment, I was unequipped to see the pattern that reproduced a similar reaction time and again. I lacked the mindfulness to cope with my circumstances or to tolerate the uncomfortable, automatic responses that were triggered. All I recognized was that I felt an unpleasant intensity that I did not want to experience, and I judged myself harshly on account of it. After so many bags packed, tickets purchased, and miles logged, security lines traversed, on-boardings, and off-boardings, I really would accept no excuses for less-than-perfection from myself. I was not allowed to be anxious, to not know the inside scoop on every traveling tip and trick, or to ever make a mistake. Finding myself stuck in an airport was certainly no reason to derail my fastidiously clean eating. I would walk miles across multiple terminals to find the healthiest salad. No dressing. Water only to drink. No peanuts, please. My rigidity and lack of compassion for myself only magnified the intensity of my negative emotions. (Go figure!) Cycles of escalating restricting would, in turn, amplify my anxiety and desperation, leading to narrower, meaner, more rigid thinking and even further restriction. Later in my eating disorder, I progressively spiraled into more frequent and severe binging episodes. After a time, I came to expect this outcome with any departure from the immediate vicinity of my work and apartment. I isolated more and more, and I traveled less and less.

Aerials
Aerials,” © Metaloxyd (own work), Sep 2010. CC BY-SA 2.0. (license)

The very first obstacle that I tackled after leaving Walden was the 13-hour drive back to Vanillasville. I didn’t want to leave, but as the psychiatrist who was overseeing my medical care told me in a frank and honest way one afternoon, “Your life is not here.” Throughout the entire day that it took me to cross those roughly 850 miles, I drew on every coping and distress tolerance skill I learned over the preceding six weeks. Every few minutes, I found myself intentionally redirecting my thoughts, self-soothing, rationally responding to a cyclone of distorted fears, or silently and tearfully whispering desperate prayers as I repeated, “It IS ok. It will BE ok. No matter what happens around me, I am ok.”

The very next weekend, I boarded a plane back to Boston. I knew that I couldn’t isolate and avoid, as I did before treatment, and it was my goddaughter’s baptism. At first, my anxiety and apprehension swelled like a brewing tropical storm before every trip. Long before I ever pulled my suitcase out of the closet, I entered the fray of pitched battle against eating disorder impulses, which were fueled by triggering memories of past behaviors and by my panic over the surrender of control that traveling required. With my therapist and my nutritionist, Kelly, I spent several weeks in advance of each departure strategizing, planning, and coping-ahead. With every complicated connection, delay, rerouting, traffic jam resulting in an almost-missed flight, rude attendant, unpleasant seat mate, lost bag, missed snack, spilled drink, etc., my self-confidence, adaptability, resourcefulness, and resiliency grew. Eventually, I reached a point where I occasionally forgot to even mention to Kelly or to my therapist that I was leaving town. The topic might come up in an offhand way, such as the time I mentioned to Kelly, “I had a great time with Alice last weekend. We went to the playground with the kids and took them for a walk with their bicycles…” She tipped her head to one side, eyeing me quizzically. “Didn’t I tell you I was going to Massachusetts last weekend?” I asked, genuinely surprised at my forgetfulness, as smiles creased both of our faces.

No matter what perchance occurrence befell me, it always worked out in the end, one way or another, ultimately. I learned that if I was dashing out the door in dread of making it to the airport on time, I could leave dishes in the sink, laundry in the dryer, dirty sheets on the bed, and the world continued to turn. I discovered that the house wouldn’t crumble to its foundations if I didn’t clean it from top to bottom and take out all the trash every time I left for a weekend away. If I could manage to throw together a shirt or two, a pair of PJs, and a couple changes of underwear and socks, chances were good that I would be able to cope with just about anything. I didn’t need to bring ten outfits for two days, and I could survive for an entire week with what I could fit in my smallest roller-bag. I learned what foods were easily transportable in a carry-on, and it became my habit to fill up half my shoulder bag with snacks and emergency rations. If I ever found myself camped out overnight on a bench in Atlanta (again), there would be no need for worry – I flew with everything I needed to assemble a dinner on-the-go and breakfast the next morning.

Seats
Seats,” © Don Harder (own work), Nov 2014. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

My departure for the airport today went off without a hiccup. Not one single hiccup. Packing and prepping was even smoother than usual this time around, likely because I’ll only be away for two days, compared to the weeklong trips I was taking throughout the spring. I was even left with enough time for a leisurely breakfast with Pangur Ban, my cat, at my side. With my bags assembled by the door, I sat down on the living room floor to paint my toenails. Brushing on the bright, poppy color slowly and smoothly, I thought, “So PERFECT!”

Hang on…

There was something not… quite… right… Not perfect… Though it felt perfect… Deceptively so.

It couldn’t be true, could it? After all, one of the tenets of my newfound authentic life was, “Nothing in this life is perfect. Only God is perfect. Circumstances are not perfect, I am not expected to be perfect, and neither is anyone else.” I employed one of my methods for testing the validity of automatic thoughts by asking myself, a) Is it true? and, b) Is it helpful? “So perfect,” tripped both alarms.

It occurred to me that this impression of my trip’s perfect beginning was not only likely inaccurate, it was potentially dangerous. If I fell into the illusion of believing that my morning was progressing perfectly, what sort of expectation was I establishing for the rest of my day. Or for my next trip? Would I be disappointed when I was rushing out the door in a few weeks, dishes in the sink, toenails looking chipped and shabby? Would I doubt myself and lament that I wasn’t performing up to my full potential? In the back of my mind, I would remind myself, “Comparison is the thief of joy,” but that wouldn’t necessarily stop the thoughts from occurring.

So… I reflected a bit more deeply on the events of the preceding few hours, and I recollected the night before. I was sleep deprived, after choosing to stay up watching YouTube videos rather than engaging in more mindful, relaxing activities that might better calm my frazzled nervous system and very, very lively brain into quiescence. During the first half of that leisurely breakfast I mentioned, I was a bit distracted and not very present with the experience. Here, I was painting my toes, but I would not be able to devote any care to my fingers until I reached my destination. Able to see these few, tiny blemishes in my otherwise spotless experience, I stopped.

Not perfect, I told myself, reassured. But, I allowed, still wonderful and amazing. These little bumps, these little snags, they take nothing away from the joy of this moment. This morning is still good. It is VERY good. But it’s not perfect.

I realized that today was not the first time that I stumbled into this trap. Nostalgia and comparison trip me up not infrequently. Identifying both the positives and negatives in the truth of the situation seemed like a healthy way to reality check. AND, even as I brought my mindful attention to the few, dim clouds in an otherwise bright, blue sky, I reminded myself, This moment is no less incredible because it is imperfect. Maybe, it is even more incredible on account of its imperfection.

Whether it’s across the street or across the world, I wish you happy and imperfect travels. ❤

Big Sky (2)
Big Sky (2)” © spodzone (own work), July 2010. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

Compassion for Self and Kindness for Others

Featured Image: “Untitled,” © Jonas Witt (own work), Nov 2009. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

When I first began the Kindness Challenge, I was feeling frayed, haggard, and on the cusp. I felt overpowered and threatened by circumstances that were beyond my control. My coping skills were always, almost, utterly depleted under the unceasing exigency. Like a raw nerve, I cringed and recoiled at the slightest prick, hypersensitive in my anticipation of the next deluge. Edgy and exhausted, my thinking slipped into rigid patterns, my self-compassion waned, and I stumbled along a circuitous course of self-perpetuating frustration over my “regression.” My intention at the outset of the challenge was to reconnect with a gentler version of myself. Through the first few weeks, I honestly noticed little change. When the fourth week of the challenge began, I was ready to begin again with renewed energy.

“Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.”

~ Blessed Mother Teresa

The focus of week #4 was “Be Kind,” which sounded simple and direct enough. However, after practicing loving-kindness meditation for the past year while striving to bring a bit more good into the world as often as I could, I wasn’t sure how the week would be different from my routine. I was re-reading Niki’s wonderful list of suggested kind acts while thinking to myself, “I already make eye contact and chat with everyone I meet, both friends and strangers. I already hold open doors for people, I’m continually working on being a better listener, I often write encouraging notes to friends and family members, I donate money to the church every week and to my favorite charities every month, I try to go out of my way just a bit to help other people when I see they need a hand, and I endeavor to remain open to the smallest act that might add a little light to the world…”

“Miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love.”

~ St. Thérèse of Lisieux

As I mentally scrolled through this litany of kindnesses, trying to conceive of something novel (that also wouldn’t take up too much time in my zany, work-a-day life), I was struck by how difficult it was for me to acknowledge my ongoing efforts. (Even typing them out here feels boastful and wrong. “People will get the wrong idea about me,” the voice in my head is saying. “I’m not that good.”)

Oh, that little voice. It clings on. I am no longer feeling quite so fragmented. Time and space are a soothing balm, but so are prayer, meditation, and the gentle, consistent, understanding, and encouraging support of an expert therapist, a skilled dietician, and a host of patient friends and family. Whether my external circumstances are truly altered, or the shift is an internal one, or both (I suspect the combination), I am thinking and feeling better. I leave it up to those who know me well to judge if my subjective sense of improvement correlates at all with an exterior change in comportment, but I am telling myself that I am less reactive and volatile than I was a month ago. Of course, my mind and my moods ebb and flow, and I continue to struggle with difficult and distorted core beliefs, such as that I am a bad person, blameworthy and wicked. Yet, I accept that I am a work in progress, and this work is the enterprise of a lifetime.

tide
Tide,” © Supermariolxpt (own work), Nov 2008. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

After toting about the book, “The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion,” by Christopher Germer, for a couple of months, I finally started to earnestly read it again. I also found a few other, short articles by various authors about what I would call, for a lack of a better term, the wholehearted approach to building an enriching life. Perhaps I needed a little refresher. With a highlighter and a pencil, I plodded along, a little bit each day, allowing the words to percolate as I scribbled my reactions and ideas in the margins. When I noticed a troubling or repetitive thought or an unpleasant feeling, I jotted it down on a sheet of paper that I titled my “monologue diary.” In five, neat columns labeled situation, thoughts, emotions, rational responses, and outcomes, I attempted to identify my underlying self-talk and pinpoint the circumstances that prompted these automated messages, countering the distortions with compassionate but honest reframing.

“Unless this love is among us, we can kill ourselves with work and it will only be work, not love. Work without love is slavery.”

~ Blessed Mother Teresa

At the conclusion of each day, as I tucked myself into bed, I permitted a few moments to feel the crisp, cotton sheets against my skin, rub my tired feet, and reflect upon my day. I paused long enough to bring to mind the different conversations that I shared with friends and strangers, the smiles, laughter, and encouraging words that were exchanged, to remember the emails or text messages that I sent to my loved ones, the letters that I mailed, the prayers that I offered for others, and each small act of generosity, whether it be holding a door open or allowing someone to skip ahead of me in line. From a six-week course on positive psychology that I completed last summer through the free, online educational website, Coursera, I learned that meditating for even a short while on “micro-moments” of connection or positivity at the end of each day would affect not only my mood but my body chemistry and neurobiology. I brought to mind the experiences from the day that were not-so-great and reflected on the ways that I failed to live up to my values. Rather than blaming or castigating myself for all of my shortcomings, I offered myself the same kindness that I was trying to cultivate for others. “Nobody is perfect. Yes, I made mistakes, and it just proves that I am human. It just shows that I am still a work in progress. Tomorrow is another day and another opportunity to try again.” It was grounding and humbling. Silently whispering my prayers, asking for the help, the grace, and the strength to navigate the coming day with an open heart, I pressed my face into my squishy, soft pillow.

“I prefer you to make mistakes in kindness than work miracles in unkindness.”

~ Blessed Mother Teresa

A week later, my heart feels fuller, and my mind is more at ease. I continue to hear the sharply judgmental and critical voices telling me that I’m worthless, that I need to work harder and earn my redemption, and fearfully casting others as potential threats to my own best interests, but I understand where those messages come from, and I don’t become angry or frustrated with myself when they occur. I recognize that they are just thoughts and emotions, and that everyone experiences unwanted and unhelpful thoughts and emotions from time to time, but they don’t dictate who I am or the choices that I make. I still need practice. It feels like a tiny, baby step. The result thus far, though, is liberating. When I am compassionate with myself, my heart feels gentle, and I treat others the same way. The kindness flows outward, but it starts with me. Wishing you all a kind, gentle, compassionate day!

“Spread love everywhere you go. Let no one ever come to you without leaving happier.”

~ Blessed Mother Teresa

Gentle breeze
Gentle breeze,” © Bill Harrison (own work), Dec 2014. CC BY 2.0. (license)

Be Not Afraid

Featured Image: “Rosa Frau Karl Drushki Wien 2014,” © Anna reg (own work), June 2014. CC BY-SA 3.0. (license)

As I scroll through my newsfeed and my blogfeed this morning, a pattern is emerging. Confusion. Fear. Bewilderment. Anger. Frustration. Helplessness. There really is no point in enumerating the litany of reasons for these emotions. They are self-evident. Terrorism, domestic and foreign. The sickening current state of our nation’s politics. Refugee crises, economic crises, global health crises…
It’s easy to despair. I am particularly vulnerable to feelings of desperation given my very black-and-white way of seeing the world and my predisposition to depressive thinking. However, then I force myself to remember, that the victory over sin and death is already won. Don’t misunderstand me; we citizens of this planet have a real and pressing duty to work now to bring about peace in our day, but I know with my whole heart that we have a victor in Christ, and it is in Him that I am putting my faith.

I leave you with these three quotes, which I am contemplating today.

“There is no evil to be faced that Christ does not face with us. There is no enemy that Christ has not already conquered. There is no cross to bear that Christ has not already borne for us, and does not bear with us.”

“Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are an Easter people, and Hallelujah is our song.” 

“The future starts today, not tomorrow.”

~ Pope St. John Paul II


Dawning of an Early Light

Featured Image:  “Fireworks over the Mall,” © Tom Bridge (own work), July 2009. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

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?!

Yes, the brownie was warm
Yes, the brownie was warm…” © Wade Brooks (own work), Dec 2011. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

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!

Ice Cream Open
Ice cream open,” © Jeremey Brooks (own work), April 2009. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

Burgers in Wonderland

Featured Image:  “Super Bowl cheeseburgers,” © Stephen Ritchie (own work), Feb 2010. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

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.

Picnic
These smiling people seem to be onto something. Maybe it’s not about the food. Maybe it’s about the company. “Picnic, circa 1960s,” © Seattle Municipal Archives, ca. 1962. CC BY 2.0. (license)

My Choffy Fix

Featured Image:  “Theobroma cacao at the ENMAX Conservatory at the Calgary Zoo,” © Wendy Cutler (own work), Sep 2012. CC BY 2.0. (license)

Despite the often heavy themes I write about here, I don’t spend all of my waking moments in introspective meditation. Occasionally, I’m known to let loose a bit.

“There’s that word again. ‘Heavy.’ Why are things so heavy in the future? Is there a problem with the Earth’s gravitational pull?”

~ Doc Brown, Back to the Future

On that note, moving along to the topic of today’s post… Choffy! Back in 2010, when I was working about a bazillion hours a week (60-100 to be more accurate), my body began to rebel against me. (The ways that stress can manifest physically are truly amazing. Even when we consciously tell ourselves that everything is grand, the body never lies.) Among other symptoms, I developed a pestering case of acid reflux. Rather than the classic heartburn-type symptoms, my GERD presented as a sensation of globus – that feeling of a lump in the throat that just never went away. In fact, it worsened after large meals, if I ate too late at night, or with certain foods. Like coffee. Groan!

How would I survive without my ritual, morning cup of hot, black, deliciousness? For awhile, I continued to bring a cup of it to my desk each day so that I could at least breathe in that strong, characteristic aroma. It was around this time that my friend Helene introduced me to choffy.

Roast cacao beans, grind them down, (in my case, buy them already roasted and ground, in a beautiful, silvery bag), steep them in a French press for five minutes, stir, strain, pour… voilà! The smoothness of what results from this process is unparalleled. Not as strong as coffee, and with only a fraction of the caffeine, choffy also lacks coffee’s acidity, and it carries the delicious flavor and luscious scent of deep, rich chocolate.

When I was immersed in my eating disorder, the thought of the few extra calories that a cup of choffy would “cost” me was paralyzing. The fact that the nutrition label on the bag of grounds was difficult to interpret increased my distress. My brain writhed and flailed as it attempted the calculations in order to determine the precise caloric content of the amount of liquid contained in my mug. Ultimately, after a couple of anxiety-fueled, eating-disorder-triggering attempts, I relegated the choffy to the very back of one of the top-most shelves of an out-of-the-way kitchen cabinet. There, it sat forgotten for years. Until last week.

On a bit of a “spring”-cleaning kick, I was rummaging about for stuff to give to goodwill when I stumbled upon the lovely silver and green bag. “I really could give this another try,” I thought. On a Sunday afternoon, I sat on my back patio, sipping a freshly pressed cup of choffy while overlooking the still, blue-green surface of the pond behind my house, listening to the rustle of tree leaves in the stiff breeze and the distinctive rushing sound of the fountain in the center of the water. The sun danced over the rippling water and threw its light boldly across the soft grass along the little hill leading away from the water’s edge. I closed my eyes, leaned back in my chair, and inhaled deeply. The smell of the choffy mingled with the gentle fragrance of the nearby petunias. “Here I am,” I thought, smiling. “This is good.”

Roasted Cacao Beans
Roasted Cacao Beans,” © James Leone Puno (own work), April 2013. CC BY-SA 2.0. (license)

Letting Go of Kindness – An Act of Self-Compassion

Featured Image:  “~Cloudy Sky~,” © ~Sage~ (own work), Sep 2006. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

A couple weeks ago, I began to fall behind on my Kindness Challenge reflections, which was ironic, considering that the emphasis during the third week was on radiating kindness through my daily acts of living. After returning from my life-changing experience at Walden in January 2015, what I desired more than anything else was to become the most loving, empathetic and compassionate, authentic version of myself possible. Could any goal be more congruent with the third week of the challenge?

“Then, beside myself with joy, I cried out: “O Jesus, my Love, at last I have found my vocation. My vocation is love! Yes, I have found my place in the bosom of the Church, and this place, O my God, Thou hast Thyself given to me: in the heart of the Church, my Mother, I will be LOVE!”

~ St. Thérèse of Lisieux

Thus, I figured that this third week would result in no great change from my everyday strivings to live wholeheartedly, lovingly, generously, and authentically. Still, I looked forward to the opportunity to rededicate myself to this way of being. Despite my best intentions, I remained quite dissatisfied with my persistent meanness and littleness. Often imagining myself as a sour lemon drop, my own mouth puckered when I recollected the rapid-fire judgments and preconceptions that came to me so unbidden and automatically. I loathed the way I was so quick to complain and how easily I became just another contributor to the cynical, negative griping that permeated my workplace.

“Miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love.”

~ St. Thérèse of Lisieux

After returning from my brief vacation about two weeks ago, I also began to notice an increase in my self-criticism, my rigidity, and my perfectionistic striving. I wasn’t sure when it started, though I suspected the change commenced at least several months ago. Discouraged, I attempted to treat myself gently, recognizing that further criticism and frustration would only perpetuate the cycle. However, I was a little depressed. What happened to the self-compassion that I so carefully nurtured in my early recovery? There was a time when I repeated these words every time I stepped out my front door:  “Today, I’m cultivating imperfection!” Somewhere along the way, my heart forgot a fundamental realization that made my recovery possible. My head knew the truth, but I lost the significance and the implication of what follows:  God loves me not because of who I am, not because of my accomplishments or efforts, not even because of my potential, but because God IS love. God’s love for me is absolutely independent of my actions, or even my beliefs. All I need is to LET God love me.

dandelion
dandelion,” © Jason (own work), July 2009. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

“When we’re accepting of our own idiosyncrasies, we become more accepting of others… If I feel humble and loving toward myself as I walk out the door, in spite of my flaws, I’ll greet others with a soft smile.”

~ Christopher K. Germer, PhD, The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion

Of course, being a hard worker, I threw all my strength and energy into the endeavor of salvaging my skills. If there was one thing I was ever good at, it was making lists. I scrambled to pinpoint ALL of my weaknesses and enumerated specific methods to rectify each one. However, identifying my “problems” only pitched me into increasing desperation and intensified rigidity. I told myself that I was a failure for my inability to maintain my coping skills and healthy thinking. I failed to read enough, write enough, live wholeheartedly, adhere to a consistent schedule of sleep, attend enough yoga classes, drink enough water, swim enough, walk enough, pray enough, use my DBT workbook enough… I couldn’t do anything right. Then, one afternoon, during a conversation with my pastor, self-awareness slowly creeped upon me. I… AM… BEING… SO… FREAKING… HARD… ON… MYSELF. I am so quick to feel persecuted and unfairly treated by others or by fate, but it is I who treat myself the most mercilessly.

At precisely 9 am, every Tuesday through Friday morning, all the decision-makers from each branch of my organization come together to brief each other… and to share “constructive” criticism. Though my office environment is very flexible, and I count my closest colleagues among my supportive friends, many of the people who gather around the conference table on these mornings rely (unconsciously, I’m certain) on those coping skills that shift pain, discomfort, and intolerance onto others – shaming, judging, and scapegoating.

When I first returned from partial hospitalization for my eating disorder, the thought of stepping back into that room evoked panic. During treatment, I discovered a fragile, precious soul under all of that hate, anger, self-loathing, numbing, helplessness, blame, and fear. Like a tender, spring bud pushing up through loose earth, I felt exquisitely vulnerable to the crushing, bitter negativity of the people around me. Fortunately, with the passage of time and regular practices of mindfulness, acceptance, and dialectics, that tiny shoot sprouted a few, delicate roots. I experimented with different ways of interpreting what transpired during our meetings as I attempted to understand circumstances from as many perspectives as possible. In my better moments, I sought countless ways to give others the benefit of the doubt. These mornings became an opportunity for me to exercise my dialectical behavioral skills, to observe, to describe, to explore my cognitive and emotional reactions, and to seek for the shared humanity that existed between all of us, but as I gradually grew stronger and more adept at navigating the world around me, my sensitivity to my ongoing need for these skills waned.

“I know now that true charity consists in bearing all our neighbours’ defects – not being surprised at their weakness, but edified at their smallest virtues.”

~ St. Thérèse of Lisieux

The morning following my conversation with my pastor, I walked into the sterile, gray-walled conference room, found my usual seat, and began scanning the many faces around me. As I settled into the moment, opening my ears to the soft, whooshing drone of the ventilation system and the gravelly, deep, methodic voice of the particular department chair who happened to be speaking, I made a rather sudden and spontaneous decision. To every meeting, I carried with me a small, spiral-bound notebook in which I recorded any thoughts, emotions, or reactions that I might need to process. Only a few pages remained in the pad that lay before me. Curiously but hesitantly, I fluttered the pages backward until I arrived at the very beginning, written precisely eleven months earlier. As I listened quietly to the relatively bland conversation unfolding around me, I skimmed my notes from July 2015 for the first time since putting them down in tiny, neat cursive. In a matter of mere seconds, my eye glancing from one line to the next, a pattern swiftly emerged. I WAS so freaking hard on myself.

There was no gradual loss of self-compassion. I never ceased treating myself kindly. The reality was that I never exercised much self-compassion, ever. For me, self-compassion was always a struggle. A year ago, the triggers for my inwardly-directed criticism were different, and I was hyper-attentive to an alternate spectrum of shortcomings. Yet, I was just as unwilling to accept imperfection in myself then as I feared I was now. A tiny slip-up provoked an equally self-blaming, self-paining response.

Which leads me to… ACCEPTANCE. Being kind is always going to be a challenge for me. That is just the way it is. That is just the way I am. There will be no rapid undoing after thirty-two years of the same strict, uncompromising, results-oriented, utilitarian, un-empathetic messages. What I received from my parents in childhood became my core beliefs about myself and the world, and from there, my inner voice springs. I can change it. I am already rewiring my brain. But slips and setbacks will happen. Perhaps the kindest gift I can give myself today is to accept that I am going to say and do nasty things, I will vent anger, frustration, impatience, and hurt onto others, and there is a very good possibility that rigidity and perfectionism will remain my stumbling blocks until the day I die, even if I live to be 100. Even if I live to be 120. Rather than treat myself severely and unforgivingly each time I catch myself thinking or behaving in these ways, maybe I can just accept my weakness with humility, and try again.

“Self-compassion can seem quite elusive at times, but since the wish to be happy and free from suffering is innate, it can’t be ignored forever; some measure of success is virtually guaranteed.”

~ Christopher K. Germer, PhD, The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion

imperfect complex
imperfect, complex,” © nosha (own work), Sep 2008. CC BY-SA 2.0. (license)

The Three Day Quote Challenge, Day Three

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

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

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

~ Paulo Coelho

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

~ St. Francis de Sales

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

~ Blessed Mother Teresa

 

My final nominees to carry on this challenge are…

The rules of the challenge are pretty easy:

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

Enjoy! ♥