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

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The Seas of Self-Storms

Featured Image: “Stormy,” © Luke Gray (own work), Oct 2011. CC BY-SA 2.0. (license)

Over the course of the past day, I found myself pitched about on the brutal seas of a turbulent shame storm. When the unfortunately familiar physical sensations of burning in my face, muscle tension in my jaw, teeth clenching, and wincing began to crest, I was able to summon little desire to face whatever real or imagined iniquity lay at the eye of this hurricane. Who would want to turn into that torrent of painful emotions and cruel self-criticisms? Armed with a toolbox of distraction techniques and distress-tolerance skills, I weathered the intermittent surges of mental and emotional anguish with their characteristic accompanying bodily signs. I took a hot shower, caught up on some reading, and listened to an audiobook, all the while pushing back the recurring sense of mortification that told me I had done something terribly, abysmally, unforgivably atrocious.

A new acquaintance recently recommended a small book to me entitled God’s Tender Mercy:  Reflections on Forgiveness by Sr. Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun. This morning, I woke feeling restored after my first decent night of sleep in recent memory, but I recognized a persisting vulnerability – the raw sting that hinted at shame lurking nearby. I reached for the little book on my bedside dresser. It was only seventy-seven 3×5 inch pages long in its entirety, and I was up to chapter two, “Forgive Us Our Sins:  Forgive Yourself.” With one hand stroking my ginger cat, I began to read.

“And sometimes keeping the rules, I came to understand, can be more sinful than breaking them,” the wise sister wrote. I placed the book on my lap and contemplated my shame. It probably rose from my impression that I violated some inviolable social mores. It likely originated in the idea that I committed some act of “rule-breaking,” though I wasn’t exactly sure which of a million, little, conflicting and mutually exclusive rules I broke. My tendency toward rigid, black-and-white thinking and my old striving to be perfect provided a ready substrate for self-imposed agony. It was my choice to remain stuck in that miserable place, I realized. “If we admitted our arrogance, faced our dishonesties, named our weaknesses – at least to ourselves – we would be consumed with kindness,” I read on. What exactly was I refusing to face? I returned to the events of the previous afternoon and revisited precisely what occurred before this particular storm started churning. There, I found myself afraid to look foolish in front of others, holding myself to such an impossible standard of decorum that the specific expectations of behavior defied definition. I saw that I was terrified of doing or saying something “wrong,” and I was telling myself that a few, minor faux pas were unforgiveable. Imagining rejection and judgment, my cheeks flushed and I reflexively scrunched my face, bowing my head and squeezing my eyes tightly closed.

“The fact is that we are all made of the same thing:  clay, the dust of the earth, the frail, fragile, shapeless thing from which we come and to which we will all return someday. We are all capable of the same things. Our only hope is that when we are all sitting somewhere bereft, exposed, outcast, humiliated and rejected by the rest of society, someone, somewhere will ‘reach out a hand and lift us up.’”

~ Sr. Joan Chittister, God’s Tender Mercy

What makes me so special that I think I should never make a mistake? I asked myself. It wasn’t a new question, but I required some gentle reminding. Who am I that when I make a mistake, I am excepted from compassion and understanding? It suddenly occurred to me that accepting compassion required a strong knowledge of self. It demanded true humility. To accept compassion, whether from myself or anyone else, would mean acknowledging my need for that compassion. Why would I need compassion unless I was deeply flawed? Facing those flaws, how could I deny that I deserved the gentle grace of forgiveness? After all, if I could not embrace my inner demons, then how could I ever hope to make enough peace with them that I might embrace others? How could I move beyond the past I could not change into the future I was called to live?

“Arrogance commits us to a community of one. There is nothing to be gained there. Don’t confuse weakness with sin. Most of us struggle with something we never quite conquer. It is precisely that struggle that can become the stuff of compassion with others.”

~ Sr. Joan Chittister, God’s Tender Mercy

Shame was trying to keep me isolated in my own ego, ruminating on the blunders of yesterday, and not in a healthy way that might lead to self-improvement, but in a self-castigating way designed only to inflict punishment and pain. Shame was telling me that I was unforgiveable, and beneath it all, shame was presuming that I was better than everyone around me, because I was fixing a standard for myself that was unreasonable for any human being. I peeled back all the layers, and staring up at me was my own, stubborn pride. It drove me to care so much about how others perceived and judged me that it sucked me into an unwinnable struggle to control the uncontrollable and secluded me in my own fear and self-defensiveness. With a great sigh, I accepted that this would not be the last time I would fall victim to the myth of self-reliance. I was refusing to allow for the graciousness of others. In my narrow, condemnatory, wounded little heart, I was denying that others might be more charitable than I was in overlooking my faults and reserving judgment. Could I admit that I was too caught up in my own self-importance, hand it all over to the God whose mercy surpasses His justice, and then simply let it go?

The driving winds of the tempest began to abate. The rain fell more softly. I started writing, and I discovered an odd gratitude. If I never went so far astray, upon what would I reflect? How would I grow?

“The only thing we can offer God of value is to give our love to people as unworthy of it as we are of God’s love.”

~ St. Catherine of Siena

the-life-comes-up-after-the-storm-02
The life comes up after the storm 02,” © Marcos Oliva (own work), May 2016. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

 

The First Mile

Featured Image:  “Running,” © Patrik Nygren (own work), Oct 2013. CC BY-SA 2.0. (license)

As a child, I learned very early and very well that I would never do anything well enough. My mother’s criticisms were strict and constant. If I drew a picture of a person with mitten-like hands, she asked me why my Crayola creation didn’t have all 10 fingers and 10 toes. For kindergarten class, our teacher asked us to cut out pictures from magazines beginning with each letter of the alphabet. Before I could begin to cut, my mom made directed me to use a ruler to outline my images in perfect boxes, sitting by my elbow to make sure I did it correctly. Only once I excised the photographs from the pages with surgical precision could I apply precisely 5 drops of glue to affix them to the paper assignment sheet. My brother and I always won ribbons in the reading and art contests at the public library. Such success was expected of us, and it was nearly guaranteed given our brilliance, talent, hard work, and my mother’s diligent, unwavering “guidance.”

As I grew up, I recognized that there was no sense in vacuuming my room if I didn’t move all the furniture and dust around the baseboards. I internalized that B’s were entirely unacceptable on report cards. An A- was tolerable in isolation, but it remained less than ideal. Handwriting that wasn’t as neat as a typewriter revealed laziness and weakness of character. If I wasn’t in the advanced placement math classes, then why bother showing up to school at all? Math was the subject where I struggled the most. Numbers, equations, and formulas left me feeling stupid and hopelessly incapable. In eighth grade, my teacher advised that I step down to “college prep,” which was level 3 out of 4. My mother was adamantly set against it, and I struggled through advanced math until I completed AP calculus as a high school senior. I earned an A, but I repeated calculus again over the course of two semesters in college. It was one of my first opportunities to choose for myself. I was also able to (finally!) quit the Spanish classes that I hated. When I was 11 years old and begged her to let me study French, my pleading fell on deaf ears. Spanish was more useful, she told me. When I was in college, I chose Latin.

My sense of worthlessness was cemented at a young age, and I came to believe that I would never be able to change. I would grow from an awkward, unattractive, isolated girl into an awkward, unattractive, isolated woman, and nobody would ever love me. It was who I was. It was who I was made to be. I hated myself. For most of my 32 years, I was a slave to my academic and professional success, straining to earn my self-worth through accomplishment. It wasn’t until I finally sought mental health treatment that I began to unravel my distorted thoughts and false reality. With the help of my cognitive behavioral therapist, I started to understand that my way of interpreting the world and my core beliefs were inaccurate. Long before I entered therapy, though, I found a new way to earn my worth that wasn’t tied to scholarship or job performance. I discovered that I was excellent at running. Over distances from a mile to 10K, I was fast! As I became more serious about running, I liked the changes that I observed in my body. I felt strong, sleek, and swift. Capable. Of course, I was never good enough at running to consider myself a runner. No matter how many races I entered, no matter how times I placed in my age group, I continued to worry that someone would uncover the truth about me – that I was an imposter. My training was too inconsistent, and my weekly mileage was too low. I was a phony.

In recovery from my eating disorder, I gave up on running. I was sidelined by injuries and illness nearly two years before I ever entered ED treatment, but through my therapy, I finally jettisoned the notion that my identity or worth came from something extrinsic. I fully expected that running would be an activity to which I would never return, and I found new ways to exercise in moderation and with balance. I distanced myself from work, allowing myself to be just average at my job for the first time, ever. Meeting expectations and requirements was sufficient. Needing time and space to explore what truly brought meaning to my life, I withdrew from anything extraneous. As I progressed in therapy, I gradually took on more professional and personal challenges. Without necessarily realizing what was happening, I slowly stretched beyond the careful boundaries I once erected to protect my nascent self. I set my professional aim a bit higher, comfortable that I knew how to right myself if the balanced tipped too far in one direction. I committed to a twice-monthly volunteer role at a local eating disorder treatment center. I booked a flight to Paris! Still, I continued to avoid running.

“Could you reclaim running and build a healthy relationship with it?” my therapist asked me. I wasn’t sure of the answer. Even walking for the sole purpose of walking stirred some inner resistance. Yet, I made a few, staggering starts. Last spring, I went out for a couple of walk-runs. Hesitantly, with great trepidation, I would walk for a few minutes, jog for 30 seconds, walk for a few minutes, and repeat. It never amounted to much, and I never built my intervals beyond a minute or so of running. I abandoned the effort until this autumn, when something inexplicable overcame me. Perhaps, it was simply the right time to try again, or perhaps it was something more.

indoor-track
Payne Whitney Gym: Indoor Track,” © Gary Ku (own work), Nov 2007. CC BY-SA 2.0. (license)

“…October is a fine and dangerous season in America. It is dry and cool and the land is wild with red and gold and crimson, and all the lassitudes of August have seeped out of your blood, and you are full of ambition. It is a wonderful time to begin anything at all.”

~ Thomas Merton, Seven Storey Mountain

One day, I very matter-of-factly decided that with all of the biking and swimming and yoga and dashing about on one errand or the next, I was certainly strong. There could be no argument about it. I drove to the squishy, rubberized track a few miles from my house, felt the bounce under the soles of my shoes, and started walking. After a few minutes, my stride broke open, and I was jogging. My legs felt strange and unnatural as I summoned the ligaments and muscles to work in ways at once familiar and not. It was a long time ago that I made this particular demand of them. For three-quarters of a mile, they carried me on, and then, just as plainly, I walked again.

The brief trot remained my solitary attempt through the length of the holiday season. There were more pressing matters to divert my attention. However, as December came to a close, my sights fixed more steadily on Paris, and I resolved to make walking a top priority in preparation for my trip. “Do you think that emphasizing walking will help you to address running, as well?” my therapist asked. I nodded affirmatively, but deferred the additional challenge until after my vacation. It was too risky. I could get hurt.

Or… maybe, I wouldn’t. Maybe, I would be fine, especially if I added distance slowly and maintained the balance of my other activities. One afternoon, I laced up my shoes, but instead of setting off at a tourist pace around the neighborhood, I climbed a set of stairs to the short, indoor track circling the basketball courts and free weight machines at the gym where I work. “I just want to see,” I told myself. “I just want to see what it’s like. I just want to see how it feels.”

It felt fine! It felt like next to nothing at all! It felt very measured and plodding, and also hopeful and foundational. It felt like a comeback – the slowest comeback ever. I felt like the tortoise overtaking the hare. I went back again the next week, keeping my distance between half and two-thirds of a mile. Slow and steady. Bit by bit. Eventually.

Friday was sunny, and a few blinding rays sliced through the large, dirty windows each time I crossed the west side of the oval. On one straightway, I could gaze across the flat landscape to the smudgy line of trees on the distant horizon, and on the other, I could glance down at the pickup games of basketball and volleyball that were underway. I counted my breaths and let my arms swing loosely at my side, conscious of driving my elbows straight back with each stroke. Between breaths, I ticked off the laps. 1…2…3… The tiny track was 1/9 of a mile. 4…5…6… I surpassed my distance from the previous week. My core muscles were tight and contracted, and I could feel my glutes powering each step. I imagined my whole body cooperating to move me along. It was a well-nourished, well-rested body in good health, both mentally and physically. I never ran under those conditions before. I never ran without anything to prove. 7…8… It occurred to me that I was about to mark a new milestone, both literally and metaphorically. 9. I finished the lap and slowed to a walk, continuing to circle until my twitching legs relaxed. A little smile creased my face. I didn’t know what would come next, but I knew that I was already enough.

mizunos
My Mizunos. Ready for the next mile…

“The Road goes ever on and on

Down from the door where it began.

Now far ahead the Road has gone,

And I must follow, if I can,

Pursuing it with eager feet,

Until it joins some larger way

Where many paths and errands meet.

And whither then? I cannot say.”

~ JRR Tolkein, The Fellowship of the Ring

To Be Known

Featured Image:  “Polar Bear – Alaska,” © rubyblossom (own work), Mar 2011. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

My best gift this Christmas wasn’t the new yoga pants that my brother and sister-in-law gave me, though I picked them out, and they were exactly what I wanted. It wasn’t the set of practical (and safe!) blinking, clip-on, LED lights that I can wear when I ride my bike at dusk, though they were also on my list. It wasn’t even the Starbucks gift card that I received in the office white elephant exchange. No.

It was a polar bear.

To be more specific, the gift was a charitable donation to the World Wildlife Fund in the amount of one polar bear adoption. I am reasonably certain that the money from the contribution goes to fund a variety of the organization’s conservation efforts, including measures to save polar bears and their habitats. In the mail, I received a form letter from the president of the WWF explaining that Margie, one of my college roommates, made the donation and adopted the polar bear in my name. The large package also included a photograph of “my” (or rather, “a”) polar bear, an official-looking certificate, a little card with some facts about polar bears, and the most adorable, soft, cuddly plush polar bear one could imagine.

On the radio this year, I heard some talk show hosts discussing “research” indicating that people generally don’t like to receive gifts of charitable donations for the holidays. I can’t remember the primary source of this information or where the results were published, but I can testify to this fact – though I recognize that Margie’s contribution to the WWF didn’t actually adopt a real, live polar bear for me, I LOVE MY IMAGINARY ADOPTED POLAR BEAR!!!!! I love knowing that this Christmas gift money went to an amazing cause rather than to the cause of amassing more stuff that I don’t truly need, no matter how purposeful it is or how much I really longed for it. I love the cuddly, little toy polar bear that accompanied the donation letter. I love the photograph of my curious (though I am sure, very ferocious) living polar bear in his native, snowy land. Most of all, I love how this gift tells me that I AM KNOWN, AND I AM LOVED. Despite all of my weird, often hypocritical, sometimes brusque idiosyncrasies, I am still loved.

You see, back in our college days, I thought that I was going to reverse the trend of global warming by convincing everyone I knew to reduce, reuse, and recycle. With alarming ideas about rising sea levels, disappearing glaciers, and shrinking ice caps in mind, I pictured the habitats of the polar bears slowly vanishing. While all of those factors were (and are) contributing to increased pressures on polar bears and declining populations, trying to convince my roommates to turn down the thermostat at night by exclaiming, “You’re killing the polar bears!” probably contributed little to improving the overall survival of the species. I can imagine that it was somewhat comical and frequently exasperating to live with me constantly declaring, “You’re killing the polar bears!” whenever someone showered for more than 20 minutes or left the water running while washing the dishes. “This from the girl who drives an SUV,” one of our friends once quipped after I made note of her excessive use of Styrofoam. In the interceding 10 years, life experience (and loads of therapy) buffered my all-or-nothing thinking and softened my approach. Yet, what this gift showed me was that Margie not only remembered this quirk of mine, but loved me in spite of it.

To be known fully, in all my imperfect messiness, and treasured just as I am… that is the best Christmas gift of all!

900-lbs
900 lbs,” © Arctic Wolf (own work), Nov 2008. CC BY-SA 2.0. (license)

Critical Moments

Featured Image:  “American & Italian Cuisine,” © GmanViz (own work), Nov 2007. CC BY NC-ND 2.0. (license)

An extrovert trying to be an introvert to avoid being hurt… that was how my first therapist described me. Isolation and feelings of loneliness were always sources of pain for me. Exploring my need to be in the company of other people and embracing the discomfort and uncertainty inherent in the swampland of forging personal connections was a first beyond the entrenched cognitive-behavioral-emotional loops of my chronic depression. Reengaging with old friends and building new relationships were dramatic shifts outside of my comfort zone, and these efforts were challenging enough. At a time when I was also waging a pitched war for my life against binge eating disorder, the fact that many (perhaps most) social situations involved food only heightened the drama. My recovery from my depression and my eating disorder were too interdependent to be dissected apart. As I battled on, my friend Amelia was a close ally on both fronts. We fell into a routine of meeting up after work every few weeks for dinner, making our way through a circuit of the best local restaurants in our little area. Over seltzer with lime and decaf black coffee, we shared all the details of our lives, from the most mundane to the deepest and most heartfelt. Each meal was anticipated with delight as an opportunity to be genuine and authentic for a few hours. In the comfortable cocoon of merry conversation, I grew increasingly resilient as I coped with one menu and then the next.

In April, Amelia accepted an offer of a new position and relocated to a city five hours away. It was a long-expected move, and there was nothing sudden about it. I was excited for her, and I was prepared for the change, but there was a difference between predicting loneliness and then actually feeling it. Over the summer, I continued to travel frequently, remained involved in all of my meaningful activities, and maintained my connections with all of my long-distance friends. Yet… I spent much of my time alone. It didn’t always feel like loneliness. I remained connected and I didn’t dwell in any sense of isolation or entertain self-pity. However, every once in a while, I felt the definitive absence of my friends. At times, my therapist and I spoke about the subject, but we never arrived at any useful conclusions. I continued to participate in yoga, I lingered after mass each Sunday to chat with my casual acquaintances from my parish, and, every so often, I went out to lunch with some of my coworkers. None of those fleeting connections filled the empty space in my heart that longed for a kindred spirit.

It was a Friday afternoon a few weeks ago, and I was leaving work in just such a state. I was at the nadir of a several-day funk, and I was not looking forward to a solitary weekend. My mood was low and my anxiety was piqued, triggered by automatic, alarming, all-or-nothing type thoughts about an upcoming professional conference and all the logistics of another trip. To an entirely new city. Alone.

My phone buzzed, and a lengthy text message popped onto the screen. It was Amelia! “Pete and I are headed your way for the weekend! There’s a cycling convention in town. I know it’s last minute, but we’re going out for dinner at Giovanni’s on Saturday night if you want to come. Let me know!” Amelia was returning at precisely the moment it seemed that I needed her most! My heart perked, but my head reeled at the name of the restaurant. Giovanni’s was decidedly unsafe.

“Lord, you have probed me, you know me: / you know when I sit and stand; / you understand my thoughts from afar. / You sift through my travels and my rest; / with all my ways you are familiar. / Even before a word is on my tongue, / Lord, you know it all. / You formed my inmost being; / You knit me in my mother’s womb. / My very self you know.”

~ Psalm 139:1b-4,13,14b

Competing ideas zipped into my consciousness. “No,” was a prominent voice. “No” to the menu, “no” to the restaurant, and “no” to everything that they both represented to me. Giovanni’s exemplified everything that I found repugnant in American food culture. It was about as far from authentically Italian as one could possibly find. The fare was entirely Midwestern American, featuring pasta with a side of bread, served with meatballs, sausage, salami, and pepperoni, heavily doused with cheese, cream sauces, and more cheese, and served with a garnish of tomato sauce. The three salads on the menu consisted mainly of iceberg lettuce, croutons, and, you guessed it, more cheese. The only entrée that included a vegetable was fried eggplant parmesan. There weren’t even any vegetable sides offered.

lightly-breaded
Lightly Breaded,” © Gexydaf (own work), Jun 2012. CC BY NC-ND 2.0. (license)

Against these objections, I also heard myself stating a decisive, Yes.” My memory of a recent appointment with my dietician resonated, and I couldn’t escape the echoed repetitions of Kelly’s voice, “You may not skip social things because of food.” I was grateful for her clear, direct manner, which left little room for quibbling. “Yes” to Kelly, “yes” to Amelia, and “yes” to connection, friendship, and wholeheartedness. I couldn’t conceive how I would manage the menu, but there was little utility in obsessing over it. Reading and rereading the descriptions of the unappealing choices would not alter them or make them more acceptable. Memorizing every deplorable detail would only make me more anxious. I admitted to myself that there were no safe choices; I replied to Amelia that I was not in the least bit comfortable with the restaurant; and I expressed my tremendous joy at the prospect of seeing her again, committing myself, for better or worse, to whatever this dinner entailed. Decision made, I settled into waiting with a combination of exuberance and resigned acceptance.

As afternoon succeeded morning on Saturday, a familiar exchange revolved through my head. Yes/no. Excitement/acceptance. Tranquility/anxiety. Amelia and Pete were at their cycling convention, and I awaited their word on a dinner time. It wasn’t until 3:30pm that I heard from them. Could I meet at the restaurant in two hours? Typically, 5:30pm would be “way too early” for me to eat, especially given the typical later timing of my weekend lunch. However, on this particular Saturday, I was grateful that the short notice left me little interval for pre-planning, advance calculations, or ruminations. Still in yoga tights and looking a teensy bit too disheveled for a sit-down meal, even at the most casual of places like Giovanni’s, my main concern was making myself presentable and getting across town in under 120 minutes.

When I arrived (only 10 minutes late – which is just on time for me!), I was so flooded with the excitement of seeing my beloved friend that I could barely focus on anything else. It was impossible to read a menu and survey all the sights and sounds of my new environment while maintaining the bubbling flow of conversation that gushed forth the instant Amelia and I reunited. I tripped my way to the table, so distracted I was peering over my shoulder in an attempt to keep her in sight, as words tumbled out in all directions from both sides. It was after the waitress paused at our table for the third time to take our orders that I concluded it was time to settle into dedicated concentration for the task at hand – to hobble together some sort of manageable compromise from a truly abysmal list of choices.

“It is just one day.”

“It is just one meal.”

“It is not going to kill me.”

“I can do this.”

When the pleasant waitress returned once more, I smiled sweetly and asked innocently, “Do you have any side vegetable dishes?” I fully expected her negative answer, but I wasn’t yet discouraged or dissuaded. “Do you have any vegetables?” I asked in my most saccharine way. Like, at all? Like, in the entire restaurant? Like, could you go to the grocery store and buy me a carrot?

She twisted one corner of her mouth and scrunched her nose as if she was racking her brain. “You know what, let me check,” she responded kindly. I tried not to be too appalled that it seemed like such a bizarre, foreign idea that a patron would want to eat a vegetable with her dinner. A few moments later, she returned triumphantly with the answer: there were spinach and red peppers in the kitchen.

“Perfect!” I internally rejoiced. I asked her if it would be too much trouble to steam some spinach for me. She offered to sauté it. I asked her to sauté it lightly, ordered the grilled chicken with pasta and pesto, and said a little prayer under my breath that my meal wouldn’t arrive at the table swimming in oil. “It’s out of my control now,” I told myself as I settled back into the rhythm of conversation, happy, content, acquiescent, pleased, relaxed, and willing.

“It is just one day.”

“It is just one meal.”

“It is not going to kill me.”

“I can do this.”

It would be a lie if I denied that I was unconcerned about gaining weight. Those thoughts were present. I was upset and disturbed by the food selection and by the relationships with food and eating behaviors reflected around me. However, in a moment when I was faced with a choice to isolate within the safe, protective shell of my eating disorder or turn all of my self-protective instincts upside down, I committed to the uncertain path, and I forged ahead without wavering. It felt risky, it felt reckless, and it felt real. In a less-than-ideal situation, I did better than cope. It felt like progress.

day-148
Day 148,” © Flood G. (own work), Feb 2012. CC BY NC-ND 2.0. (license)

Fessing Up

Featured Image: “Head in Hands,” © Alex Proimos (own work), Dec 2009. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

Yesterday, I did something really stupid and careless.

I hit a parked car.

The story itself is rather unremarkable… in retrospect. It is not an experience I am eager to repeat, but at the same time, I am bizarrely grateful that it happened.

It was 10 minutes to 4 o’clock, and I was scooting out of work a bit early. The parking lot was still full of neatly aligned vehicles, and I was a bit pleased as punch that I was going to beat the mad rush of traffic that would soon be backing up on the little, two-lane road. My car was at the end of a row that faced uphill, so when I started backing out of my spot, I allowed gravity to do the work for me. I slowly rolled backward, lazily turning the steering wheel while gazing absent-mindedly in my side-view mirror.

There was no jolt, no thump, no shudder. The tiny collision almost escaped my notice entirely. But, it was a beautiful autumn day, and my windows were rolled all the way down. At the same time that my foot pressed the break to shift into drive, the faint sound of metal scraping metal assailed my ears. “Did I just hit that car?” I wondered, scrutinizing the ancient, long Cadillac that jutted into the aisle behind me. The Caddy looked like it was from 1970 and was probably built like a tank. I was more worried about damage to my car if I did, indeed, bump it. “What do I do?” flashed through my mind. For a fraction of an instant, I considered driving away and feigning complete ignorance of what just occurred, but my anxiety and my need-to-know seized me. I jumped out to hastily glance at my bumper. “Looks good!” I quickly concluded. For another nanosecond, I told myself that I ought to walk over to examine the other car, but then I rationalized, “That car is way sturdier than mine, and if mine’s ok, the other car must be ok, too. Anyway, looks good from here!” I shot a brief squint over my shoulder as I climbed back behind the wheel.

1970-cadillac-convertible
1970 Cadillac Convertible,” © George Pankewytch (own work), Jul 2013. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

As I zoomed away, I was wracked with doubt. “It’s fine,” I tried to tell myself. “This stuff happens all the time.” I recollected the time someone doored my car in the very same parking lot, putting a giant dent in my side panel that cost $200 to repair. Maybe little dings and scrapes did happen all the time, but that didn’t make it right. “I should have left a note.” I considered trying to track down the owner of the car when I returned to work the next day. As I continued along my route, I started mentally composing the note I should have written. “Well, if I am ever in a similar situation again, I will act differently,” I decided.

When I arrived home, I inspected my rear bumper more closely. There was no dent, but the paint was most definitely cracked. So… I hit with enough force to crack the paint. “Did I just commit a crime?” I wondered. “Was that a hit and run?” My wild imagination began concocting scenarios involving parking lot security cameras, police investigations, and serious consequences. My anxiety skyrocketed. “Well, this isn’t the afternoon that I planned,” I assented. I didn’t know what would happen next, if my victim was even still at work, but I knew that I needed to go back. I needed to at least try to set it right.

Fortunately, the drive lasted all of twelve minutes, even despite the traffic. Double fortunately, the Caddy was precisely where I left it. There was no sign of scratch, scrape, dent, nor ding. I fished a blank index card out of my work bag and scribbled a slightly hedging but very apologetic note. “I think I bumped the front of your car as I was backing out of my parking spot today. It cracked the paint on my rear bumper, but I didn’t see any damage to your front bumper. If you notice anything, though, please call me. I am so sorry!!” I neatly printed my phone number at the bottom and signed my name. Still shaken, I walked back into the office. Most of my co-workers were gone, but my friend Patrick was still there. “I thought you went home,” he declared, surprised to see me.

“I did,” I stated bluntly. “I came back.”

“Ohhh,” he nodded in a knowing way, indicating he could tell that something was clearly out of sorts. I unfolded the whole story of my little accident, my flight from the scene, and my ultimate return to take responsibility for my mistake. He nodded again.

“I’ve written notes like that before,” he admitted.

I was astounded. “You have?!” I asked, my voice peaking. Then, he shared his story with me. Bad weather, icy roads, and a hurry to get to a class, followed by the comically slow slide into a stranger’s car, the definitive “dink” of metal tapping metal, and the dawning realization of what just transpired.

“The owner never called,” he told me. “Maybe this person will never call you either.”

“Maybe he will call and say, ‘My car is ok, but thank you so much for your very nice and honest note,’” I suggested, wishfully. It felt good to know that I did the right thing, in the end. It also felt good to know that I wasn’t alone in perpetrating careless blunders.

Why am I grateful that I hit a parked car? I believe that God is at work in all the moments of our lives. As I reflect on this accident, I am contemplating how it is helpful for me to let go of my expectations in order to recognize and accept the graces that God wants to give me. God’s gifts to me may not fit into my limited construct and narrow definition of a blessing.

Maybe I needed a little reminder of my human limitations and my great capacity to err. Maybe it was time for a little exercise in humility. Maybe I was in want of a fear-inducing challenge to my values so that I could face down that fear to grow in the courage of owning up to my mistakes and accepting the consequences of my actions. Of all the dumb, careless, or misguided things I could do, backing into a parked car at 2mph was a relatively harmless gaffe upon which to build my humble mistake-owning.

In the end, yesterday afternoon was a reminder that we are all vulnerable to chance snafus. It happens to me, it happens to Patrick, and it happens to everyone else. When I make mistakes, I face a choice. I can either keep all of my slip-ups and faults to myself, attempting to portray a perfect image to the outside world, keeping everyone else at arm’s length… or I can admit the truth about who I am – all the silly, crazy, weird, flawed, and dysfunctional parts of me – and be my authentic self.

P.S. As I am pressing “Publish,” I am feeling the melting sensations of shame and the gripping of fear, mainly stemming from the fact that I ran away at first. I am still imagining police officers knocking on my door. There’s absolutely no excuse for my initial reaction. However, hopefully others can summon some compassion in their hearts for my genuine remorse, with the recognition that we all do idiotic things from time to time. Especially when we are afraid.

facepalm
Even adorable, furry animals have those days. “#facepalm,” © Victor Gumayunov (own work), Feb 2011. CC BY 2.0. (license)

“The antidote to fear is gratitude. The antidote to anger is gratitude. You can’t feel fear or anger while feeling gratitude at the same time.”

~ Tony Robbins

I See Your Baguette, and I Raise You a Pad of Butter and a Cappuccino

“I need to figure out an alternative vacation strategy,” I told Melanie, my therapist, as I left her office. It was a mere two days following my return from my last trip. My autumn “vacation” was actually just a week spent lazing around my parents’ house and puttering about my hometown. After too long in the same routine, I was exhausted and harried. Like hardening cement, I was becoming increasingly rigid and fixed in my routines. The detrimental effect on my thoughts only further amplified the tension, inflexibility, and negativity that manifested in my speech and behavior. I told myself that removing myself from that environment would be the respite that I needed.

During my break, I practiced at one of my favorite yoga studios, went swimming and biking, caught up with a couple of my close friends from childhood and college, and wiled away hours on some of my favorite activities – reading and writing. My week was not as idyllic as it might sound, however. At home, triggers abounded, worsemed by my parents’ recent retirement in July. My reactions were complicated, but they were mostly averse. Fortunately, my coping skills were sufficient to keep me from any major outbursts or meltdowns, but the hostility that I swallowed and bottled inside me was toxic. I came back to Vanillasville with an intense self-loathing. During my week at home, my hatred for myself and my body reached a level that I last experienced before my partial hospitalization for my eating disorder. I returned with a desire to restrict to the point of losing a substantial amount of weight.

One of the underlying messages that permeated my conscious (and likely my subconscious) thoughts was a consistent monologue of variations on, “I hate myself. I’m a failure.” I told myself that my stay with my parents was worthless, a waste of my vacation days, and a direct manifestation of my fear and laziness. Planning a real vacation would mean confronting some nasty demons in my closet, and I felt helplessly frustrated by my paralysis before that closed door. All because of FEAR.

“That’s a workable problem,” Melanie told me on Tuesday. “We can address that.” I smiled as I pulled my bag over my shoulder and reached for the doorknob. I wasn’t convinced. She didn’t know the whole truth behind my avoidance. After delaying for over a year, I finally renewed my passport last December. I picked a destination and bought a Paris guidebook. As winter gave way to spring and then summer, I found one reason after another to push back my nascent plans. “It just isn’t the right time. I’ll get to it after I adjust to this new project at work. It doesn’t make any sense to start planning before I find someone who will travel with me. It will happen when it happens. I don’t need to be in a hurry.” With nothing more than an idea and a Rick Steves guide, I was stalled.

seine-sunset
Seine sunset eiffel tower back,” © Simone S. Taddei (own work), Oct 2014. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (license).

The day after my conversation with Melanie, I met with Kelly, my nutritionist. Together, we processed the events of my “vacation,” the meals I ate, my obsession with desserts, and my marriage to my meal plan. Once more, she informed me that my weight was stable, and, once more, I told her that she must be lying.

Last month, Kelly showed me a book on mindful eating that she thought would be helpful for me to read, and I replied, “I don’t think I’m ready for that yet.” It took a desperate leap of faith for me to trust my first dietician enough to risk my life on my current meal plan. When every other attempt I made to recover from my binge eating disorder failed, I found my rock bottom, which was someplace between insanity and suicide. From that place, there was nothing more to lose, and I finally chanced moving beyond my severely restrictive orthorexia.

“You still won’t you trust yourself with food,” Kelly pointed out… again. She likes to remind me that, despite all the ups and downs I experienced leaving Walden, returning to Vanillasville, resuming work, and coping with the upheavals of a (semi)-engaged life, my last binge was in November 2014. Yet, I return to the fact that I achieved my current stability with the safety-net of my meal plan. Abandoning my measuring cups, countertop scales, and precisely tabulated and proportioned exchanges would mean risking everything I worked so hard to build over the past 22 months.

“I don’t deserve to be trusted!” I wanted to shout. I felt like reaching across the desk between us and shaking her by the shoulders for further emphasis. “I can’t eat mindfully. I CAN’T do it! It will all fall apart. It will be just like it was before – before my eating disorder, when I was heavy, and I ate too much all the time, and I didn’t care, and I just ate whatever because it tasted good, and it was there. And I’ll feel sick all the time like I did, and have no energy, and I WILL GAIN WEIGHT.” I was thinking of middle school, high school, college, and graduate school, when I didn’t eat mindfully, used food for a host of other purposes beyond nurturing my body, and was engaged in some seriously unhealthy habits. Finally, I admitted out loud, “I don’t want to gain weight. I am still obsessed with not gaining weight.”

Amazingly, Kelly didn’t care. “I’d be worried if you were consistently telling me that you thought you needed to lose weight and that you weighed too much, but it’s not an unhealthy thing to want to maintain a healthy weight.” Her unexpected reaction caught me entirely off guard. I was prepared for another conversation about why weight didn’t matter, but instead, she emphasized that maintaining my healthy weight did matter to her just as much as it mattered to me. After experiencing a week of so much invalidation, Kelly left me speechless.

There was more. Kelly continued, “If you really want to go to Paris, then you need to be able to walk into a Panera, order a side baguette, and eat it.” Uncontrollably, I burst into a genuine fit of laughter. The idea was so preposterous that it was outright comical. There was no way I would ever voluntarily eat a giant chunk of white bread, particularly considering that the local Panera café, conveniently located directly along my commute, was previously a major source of binge-food during the darkest periods of my disorder. “Well,” sighed Kelly, “at least don’t avoid any social situations because of the food this week,” she charged me. “Done,” I thought. At this point in my recovery, such an instruction was hardly a challenge.

Here’s the thing. I want to go to Paris. Here’s the other thing. I’m kind of an over-achiever, with a bit of a competitive streak, I’m meticulous about following directions, I’m an insufferable people-pleaser, and I don’t back down from a fight. Those attributes are part of the temperament that predispose to the development of an eating disorder in the first place, but they are also the traits that empower recovery. So, what does a scrappy, rule-following, over-achieving, approval-and-reward-dependent, recovering orthorexic binge-eater do when confronted with an eat-a-baguette challenge?

Last Saturday, I declared a “Challenge Snack Day,” and I decided to eat Kelly’s baguette in what I imagined to be true Parisian fashion. “Kelly,” I said to myself, “I am seeing your baguette, and I am raising you a pad of butter and a cappuccino. So there! You knew I would do it, didn’t you?” It was a rare treat to allow myself butter, and it was only my second cappuccino in the past two years, though I admitted that both were foods that delighted me in small and occasional portions. The mindfulness continued into the afternoon, when I scaled down the size of my lunch by one dairy serving to balance the extra frothy milk and espresso that I sipped slowly with my earlier snack.

Something tells me that sticking your face directly into your mug to loudly slurp your delicious foam is frowned upon by the French. I suppose that in the future, I will need to make some compromises in the interest of polite decorum. There is still a long, long way to go, and I am still unsure and distrustful, but I hope that it won’t be like it was “before.”

baguette-and-cappuccino-after
Savoring my delicious success (September 2016).