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)

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)

Returning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rhodedendron
Rhododendrons at home in Connecticut

A Birthday Rehabilitated – The Second Week of the Kindness Challenge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#RevofKindness #bekind

Going to the Mattresses

Featured Image:  “The gloves are off,” © Chris Bird (own work), Aug 2014. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

This is a message of warning to mediocre desserts everywhere. Don’t cross me. An Italian chef may drizzle you with a triple-chocolate reduction, sprinkle you with organic cocoa, and poise a perfectly rounded scoop of house-made gelato beside you, but it doesn’t change the fact that bread pudding remains, in essence, cubes of soggy bread. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice… well… let’s just say that things will get real.

As I explore novel foods and cultivate a new relationship with eating, nutrition, health, and my body, I am learning to embrace the peculiarities of my individual tastes. I don’t like gummy worms, lollipops, or potato chips. I don’t understand the allure of popsicles, and if it can be described as Cajun, it likely will not appeal to me. It’s easy to dislike food that I consider “unhealthy.” It is exceedingly more challenging to accept that I probably possess more than one sweet tooth and that some of those “bad” foods are actually really yummy. Like, really yummy. I am beginning to acknowledge that when I go out to eat, I am going to need to leave room for dessert. Is it progress that I don’t necessarily need the permission of the others at the table when the waiter hovers at the end of the meal, awaiting the answer to the awkward question, “Can I show you our dessert menu?” That particular moment always seems to prompt an uncomfortable shifting of eyes and inarticulate mumbling. Instead of remaining silent and then releasing a sigh of disappointed relief after a friend answers, “I think we’re all set,” I am increasingly more likely to declare that, yes, I absolutely want something sweet and preferably chocolatey. Half the reason I look forward to dining out is the fancy dessert at the end, which I don’t allow myself when I’m preparing a usual weekday meal in my solitary apartment.

The path to accepting my love of dessert was paved with potholes. When I binged, it was mainly chocolate, ice cream, and simple carbohydrates that I craved. These were dangerous and evil foods. Especially ice cream. “Do you even like the taste of ice cream?” Kelly asked me once, after I nearly passed out while standing in front of the dessert table at Alice’s house last Fourth of July. It turned out that the answer was yes, but only certain flavors, and certain types, in small amounts (so as to not irritate my lactose intolerance), and under specific conditions. After battling my weakness for dessert for most of the past year, Amelia made the choice much simpler. The first time that we went out together, she revealed that she never passed up an opportunity for dessert. Though she always let me pick out the restaurant, and she never put me in a situation that was beyond the ability of my coping skills, we ordered dessert on each of our every-other-week outings. There was never an uneasy pause when the waiter or waitress circled back with his or her inevitable query. At first, I continued to berate myself on those nights when I felt “too full,” or when I finished every last lick or crumb… especially if the taste, like that of the bread pudding, was sort-of mediocre. “Can’t you just accept that when you go out, you’re going to order dessert?” Kelly finally asked me. “Is it really so bad? Is it really so awful to know that when you eat at a restaurant, you’re going to need to save room during the main course, because you will want to order dessert?”

…Hmmmmmmm…

So, I began to embrace this sweet-loving side of me. I gave the little demon a name, put on a record, and coaxed it out of the closet for a dance. Or at least a shuffle. Maybe a wiggle. A wiggling shuffle. At the same time, I continued to discover new insights into my likes and dislikes. Bread pudding? No. A nice, gloopy rice pudding? Well, now that is a different creature all together! Cupcakes from a boxed mix? Definitely pass. Store-bought or packaged chocolate chip cookies? ICK! Homemade carrot cake? Sign me up!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
dessert platter,” © Pearl Pirie (own work), Sep 2014. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

The week before Easter, a box arrived in our office from Germany. It was a care package from Inga, one of my co-workers who was abroad on business. When I arrived at 8 am, it was already spilling its plethora of brightly colored plastic wrappers and shiny foils onto the table in the break room. She sent a case of Kinder Hippos, a bucket of Haribo chews, rolls of licorice string, hazelnut cream-filled cookies, and milk chocolate-covered toffee Easter eggs. Grand. Knowledge of the presence of this surfeit of sugar mere paces from my door did not distract me from my work all morning. Progress! Before treatment, the anxiety, impulsivity, urgency, and distress would, without fail, overwhelm me within an hour and precipitate an all-day binge. My ability to walk away from the food and the thoughts did not escape my attention. Hooray! *Back-pat.* Recovery works. However, when it came to my usual snack time, my mind returned to those hippos and toffees. They were not treats that I would ever choose for myself, but they were readily available, and they were “special” because they came all the way from Deutschland and bore labels that I couldn’t interpret. I decided to mindfully and purposefully try one of each chocolate variety, of which there were three. At the end of my taste-test, I concluded that the hippo was the most delicious – not too sweet, with a truly delightful cream center – even if it was shaped like a children’s toy. The two toffee flavors, on the other hand… well, the hippo was definitely better. My co-workers seemed to agree with me, because by the end of the day, the hippos were gone, and the bags of toffee still remained.

Two days later, I found myself preparing my lunch and staring at that same, stupid bag of chocolate toffee. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t terrible. After I finished my lunch, I tried it again. Maybe I needed to give it a second chance. It wasn’t any yummier the second time around, though. Then, last week, after a particularly emotional day and a difficult meeting with my therapist, I found myself bee-lining straight to the office kitchen. Where are those chocolates? I knew that I was seeking sweets to soothe my emotions, and I wasn’t pleased about it, but I also wasn’t binging, and I wasn’t in any anxiety or distress about one isolated incident of eating a piece of candy because I was emotional. It happened. Big deal. However, when there were still three flipping pieces of that substandard toffee left several days later, I was about to lose my mind. Clearly, nobody in the office was all that interested in it, because it was still laying around. I snatched them up. Enough was enough. It was time for my counteroffensive. The chocolate in the break room was starting to become a problem. Or, at least, I was starting to have a problem with the chocolate in the break room. One of those last three pieces I gave away. I wrapped the remaining two in a paper towel, I delicately placed them on the floor, and then I jumped and stomped on them until there was nothing left but a mash of chocolate toffee dust. What does that mean? Is this some sign that my ED is worsening? part of me wondered. Another part of me didn’t care. I felt relieved and liberated. I made a different choice.

Life is pretty uncertain for me these days, and I am in a very vulnerable place. I recognize that I am coping with many changes, and to say that it is difficult is a massive understatement. Even working with my therapist and my nutritionist, it is hard for me to put the pieces together, identify my thoughts and emotions, and address them. In this place of vulnerability, I know that I am at risk of using my old coping behaviors, but I realize that seeking comfort in food is not a solution. It will not bring me the relief that I seek. For better or worse, here I am, with all of my dark marks and blemishes. All I can do is the best I can and pray that it is enough. I’m not the person I was before. So… mediocre-tasting desserts. I will not eat you just because I am feeling lousy. Don’t test me.

Untitled - boxing
Untitled,” ©Paola Kizette Cimente (own work), Apr 2010. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

 

 

Change

“Isn’t it funny how day by day nothing changes, but when you look back everything is different?”

~ C.S. Lewis

On a cursory glance through my recent blog entries, it would appear that one of my oft-recurring, favorite themes to expound upon is change. The very title of the blog suggests as much. If I am as objective as I can be (who among us is really, truly objective when considering our own lives?), I cannot deny that I am undergoing noticeable changes. Certain moments and circumstances lend more readily to introspection and reflection. This season of Easter and the rebirth of spring is one of those periods.  However, while I fully acknowledge that some of my ways of acting are different and that, through practice and repeated exposures, I am building new tools for responding to previously triggering stimuli, at the end of the day, the question remains… am I really changing? Am I, as a person, as a human being with a heart, soul, mind, and will, actually growing? As I type this, am I any better today than I was yesterday, or last week, or last month, or last year?

“Each person’s task in life is to become an increasingly better person.”

~ Leo Tolstoy

A short time ago, the wonderfully insightful Maria, author of the blog “Small Changes for Life,” wrote in a post, “You know what’s amazing? We were all created with the ability to change. It’s the one true constant we can all see in nature with our eyes, but what’s really fantastic is we can also change on purpose.” As I read those words, I found myself wondering… do I believe that I am capable of change?

“True progress quietly and persistently moves along without notice.”

~ St. Francis de Sales

In my logical, cognitive, analytical, mind, I know that I am constantly changing. I am never the same from one moment to the next. Even writing this blog post is stimulating neurons to fire in my cerebral cortex. I’m connecting axons and dendrites in novel ways while reinforcing other patterns already laid down. As my fingers plunk away at the keys, the muscle fibers contract and relax, strengthening ever so subtly with the repeated motion. I will never undo the events that transpired earlier in the day, and I will never un-write the memories that I created. Those memories will continue to be shaped and re-interpreted with each successive experience of my life, morphing and adapting in the fluidity of my existence. Time does not unwind. When I post this piece, I will not be the same as I was when I started composing it. Even the universe itself is constantly expanding. This idea of ever-shifting context is comforting when I face setbacks in my eating disorder recovery. When those setbacks cause tremendous emotional upheaval and self-doubt, it is particularly easy for me to tell myself that all of the skills I was previously using, all the insights I discovered and practices I developed at Walden, are just-plain-gone. However, when I can recollect myself long enough to remember that there is no going back, I can find the courage to believe that a setback is sometimes just another step on the recovery journey, albeit a painful one.

“Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending.”

~ Maria Robinson

So, yes, the part of my brain that loves to theorize and cogitate relishes the knowledge that change is constant. However…

When I look deep into my heart, my core beliefs tell me a different tale. In my most fundamental interior place, the belief that I hold in the center of my soul is one of immutability, incapability, and worthlessness. And, oh, how it breaks my heart to know this to be my conviction! Sitting quietly by myself, with my open journal and a pen, delving into my deepest recesses, I write these words: “I find myself a loathsome, miserable, useless wretch. I am filled with despair.” What happens if I believe that it is impossible to avoid change, and at the same time, I don’t believe that I am capable of the changes I long to see in myself? This question is one that I cannot answer. Yet, at some level, whether superficial or central, I must believe that I can somehow, at some time, overcome all the faults and weaknesses of character that I find so desperately troubling. If I didn’t, how could I still be here, today, trying?

“Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says I’ll try again tomorrow.”

~ Mary Anne Radmacher

Featured Image: “heart is in my hands,” © Shimelle Laine (own work), Apr 2007. CC BY 2.0. (license)

The Big Dig of Life

Featured Image: “Big_Dig_1999_1016_16,” © Martin & Jessica O’Brien (own work), October 1999. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

Anyone from the New England area is familiar with The Big Dig. You don’t grow up in New England without at some point in life, driving in it, through it, around it, or sitting in traffic because of it. With a loan repayment plan that stretches into 2038, as far as I know, it remains the most expensive highway construction project ever in the history of the United States.

Work on The Big Dig spanned three decades, and the costs before interest totaled $15 billion. When all the debt was tallied, the final bill came in at $24.3 billion, which far surpassed the originally projected $2.4 billion. In the end, it took more money to finance The Big Dig than went into building the Chunnel. That same investment would buy NASA four Hubble telescopes! The Big Dig was an ambitious undertaking. Ground broke in 1991 with dredging for the Ted Williams Tunnel, and the project was plagued with all sorts of setbacks and controversies. Some of the problems encountered along the way were devastating. The failure of the anchors affixing the concrete slabs to the roof of one of the tunnels resulted in the tragic death of a woman when the ceiling collapsed on her car. There were also countless leaks. Dangerous guardrails were eventually replaced. However, the last touches were completed in 2006, and the Big Dig was declared dug.

Except, the work was never finished. Not really. On a recent visit home, all the lights in the entire length of tunnel that I traversed were turned off for inspection and maintenance, and one lane was closed while road crews in bright orange vests and hard hats poured over blueprints, shined flashlights into crevices, and wielded heavy equipment. Ten years after the project’s official conclusion, the work continued.

Messy, complicated, costly, and time-consuming, with traffic patterns becoming more snarled and congested before any hint of improvement… working with a goal in mind and a grand, aspiring plan, hoping for success while muddling through first once complication and then another, some with disastrous consequences, without any real guarantee of the desired outcome… all the while facing criticism and wrestling with doubt…

Big Dig Signs
Big Dig Signs,” © Stephen Gore (own work), March 2004. CC BY 2.0. (license)

When I think about The Big Dig project, it seems an apt metaphor for my life. Thanks to the second law of thermodynamics, even in its current state of “completion,” the tunnel requires continual care and upkeep. In the same way, I am always struggling to adjust under the ever-shifting imbalances of my life. I am always digging deeper, exploring the dark, hidden parts of my mind and my heart, trying to bring the life I live into some sort of closer alignment with the values that I hold so precious. Never, ever will the work of my life’s project be complete. Never, ever will I achieve a steady state. The excavation is ongoing. There is a constant patching of one crack, only to then find that another is opening somewhere else. Careful examination reveals giant potholes. Sometimes, I fail to discover these until I am lying face down at the bottom of one, spitting out rocks. Once I extricate myself, I must go about the hard job of patching it up and repaving.

Increasingly, I am becoming more and more convinced that the concept of “balance” and the ideal of “serenity” are, in a way, illusions. Peace, it seems, may just arise from the ability to be malleable enough to seamlessly, consciously, mindfully re-prioritize with the fluid demands of each new moment. Wouldn’t it be bliss to be able to recognize a slight alteration in circumstances and let go of the needs that were so pressingly important minutes ago in order to make space for the demands of the new context? How much of the imbalance and suffering in my life springs from either an inability or a refusal to recognize and accept reality? I don’t think I can answer that question. All I can do is keep digging.

Zakim Bridge
Zakim Bridge north tower reflection at dusk,” © Chris Devers (own work), September 2008. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

Sources:

  1. Goldman N. “7 Things that Cost Less than the Big Dig,” WBUR News. Jul 12, 2012. Accessed on Apr 6, 2016.
  2. Hofherr J. “Can We Talk Rationally About the Big Dig Yet?Boston.com. Jan 5, 2015. Accessed on Apr 6, 2016.
  3. The Big Dig:  Facts and Figures,” Massachusetts Department of Transportation Highway Division. Accessed on Apr 6, 2016.

 

 

Mending Rifts

Featured Image: “Love,” © Lisa Ruokis (own work), May 2005. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

Last month, I really enjoyed participating in the Three-Day Quote Challenge. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I thought I might continue to write about a quote now or then if one happened to be particularly rattling my soul.

Lately, it is these words from Desmond Tutu that I can’t seem to shake…

“Without forgiveness, there’s no future.” ~ Desmond Tutu

When I contemplate this quote, it stirs many different reactions. I think of the forgiveness that could bring healing to families, the forgiveness that could put an end to divisions between neighbors and communities, the forgiveness that might open conversations and lead to cooperation and peace among nations. Mostly, though, I think about the forgiveness that I battle to find within myself.

I struggle to forgive myself for all my imperfections. Even though I can cite a list of reasons why I am a worthy human being who is good enough just as she is, precious to God, full of love, harboring an inner light and a little spark of the divine, when I peel back all the layers and explore the deepest recesses of my unconscious thoughts, my core beliefs remain, “I’m not good enough. I’ll never be good enough. I must work harder.” I am constantly trying to prove my dignity and value to myself, which is a futile exercise, because no matter how hard I work, it’s never enough. The entire enterprise is overwhelming and exhausting.

There are two other people that I struggle hardest to forgive, and my inability to let go of our painful histories is a torment. Some wounds are deep, and they continue to bleed over years and decades. My heart aches to forgive, but it also won’t let me forget. Slowly, I am beginning to consider the idea that forgiving does not mean approving of wrongs, hurts, and traumas. A person’s unconscionable actions remain unacceptable even once the forgiveness is bestowed, but healing can happen anyway.

When God forgives me, it doesn’t mean that my sins didn’t matter, and it doesn’t mean that what I did wasn’t wrong. My sins always matter, and what is inherently wrong cannot be reclassified. Instead, God pours out his incomprehensible mercy, proving that his perfect love far surpasses my weakness and failings. He doesn’t condone my actions, but he accepts my imperfection, and then he drowns out my wrongs with his love.

If I withhold forgiveness, the future that I am destroying is my own. Dwelling in pain, loss, and bitterness is like slowly sipping on poison. I long to acknowledge that while I am not the person I want to be, I am worthy enough to love myself just as I am. While I don’t approve of some hurtful things that happened in the past (and continue to happen in small ways today), I want to be able to forgive the people who are important to me. Maybe this whole forgiving thing is a continual process. I’m not sure how to begin, but love seems like a good place to start.

The Daisy Follows Soft the Sun
The Daisy Follows Soft the Sun,” © Cam Miller (own work), July 2014. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

Transitioning

Featured Image: “SPRING BUDS ROBIN,” © Mary Shattock (own work), February 2015. CC BY-SA 2.0. (license)

On Tuesday, a week ago, the sun broke through the clouds and illuminated the landscape in color. It chased away the muted tones of winter with a stiff gust, sending a scattering of dead leaves, a few old seed pods, and the detritus of sand and salt into gutters and crevices, making way for something fresh and new. The temperature climbed above 70 F for the first time, hinting impishly at the changes to come. My soul sighed with the gentle whispers of early spring. My breath rose and fell in a placid rhythm with the warm, radiating light as it crossed its zenith and slowly, subtly dipped toward the horizon. At the most western edge of a time zone, before any adjustment for Daylight Saving, that ball of brilliance didn’t complete its setting until a few minutes before the hands of the clock marked 7 pm. For a hesitant instant, the world was cast into a dim twilight, and then… darkness.

In the morning when I woke and pulled back my blinds, the light of day was already broken open, and a cacophony of birdsong greeted me. For the first time in 2016, it was warm enough at the beginning of the day to heave open the heavy, sliding glass door leading to the patio and the little pond beyond. The cool breeze tickled my cheek, and I listened to the low, resonant notes of the wind chimes while I ate my oatmeal and sipped my coffee.

Yes, spring is here. The transition from winter to the season of longer days and warmer weather is invigorating. Winter possesses its own unique, precious beauty, but by March I am invariably weary. My eyes grow too accustomed to the palate of the season, and I begin to see only drabness and dullness where once I appreciated the simplistic nakedness of those spare and stark months. Yet, even as I feel my heart fluttering happily with the wings of the birds that are flitting overhead, I acknowledge this truth… transitions are hard. I am so grateful. I am overwhelmed by the blessing it is to be able to welcome spring with joy and delighted expectation. It is only on account of my painful struggle through this transition last year that I can rally the confidence to be comforted by the melting away of this present March.

A person might wonder what could possibly be so distressing about the arrival of spring and summer. The fact of the matter was that I knew how to “be in recovery” in the cold and dark, when the whole world around me was in a state of hibernation, but I knew nothing of how to be out in the light. As the days lengthened, I grew increasingly scared, overwhelmed, anxious, dissatisfied, disappointed, and edgy. At times, my fear of summer was so intense that I was reduced to hyperventilation and tears. Evenings were particularly difficult, when the sun would hang above the horizon for hour after uncomfortable hour. Why should it matter whether I ate dinner while it was daylight or dark? But it did. The world outside my window was coaxing me to join it, and I was terrified.

My friends and neighbors peeled off their parkas and sweaters and resumed their warm-weather hobbies. All about me, Vanillasville stirred from its deep slumber and took to the streets and sidewalks. As I drove to and from work, the grocery store, church, my therapist’s office, or the coffee shop, I saw people running, walking, biking, pushing strollers, laughing, smiling, playing… living. I enjoyed my safe, protected, indoor life. It was familiar, and suddenly it felt threatened. I didn’t know how to cope out there. Like a bird whose cage door was finally opened after a long captivity, I clung to the perch I knew while crying out mournfully, staring at the freedom that lay just beyond the threshold I was too frightened to cross.

P7177076
Fugl i bur (du må vel være sur),” © Erik (own work), July 2011. CC BY 2.0. (license)

It would be wonderful if I could tell a nice, neat story of pushing my boundaries, venturing into the unfamiliar, and discovering an amazing, incredible world. Such a tale would be a lie, though. In some ways, I suppose I did challenge myself, bit by bit. I learned to love the merriment of summer gradually the more I ventured out. However, the transition was incredibly painful in every respect – mentally, emotionally, and, particularly, physically. It was rough. It sucked. And I survived. I grew, I learned, and I came to a better understanding of myself.

One of the many pieces of the intricate puzzle of my transition was my relationship with my body. How active could I be? What could I tolerate? After so many injuries and so much illness, I viewed myself as fundamentally broken, and I continued to suffer a great deal of both physical and psychological pain. It took a tremendous leap of faith for me to stop exercising when I entered partial hospitalization in late November. December, January, and February allowed my body an opportunity to rest and heal. For the first time in my entire life, I experienced bodily stillness. Incrementally, the sedentariness that began as tortuous became reassuring. Breaking free of that static inertia was even more difficult, because I placed the weight of my recovery on the structure of my routine. It would be impossible to provide a detailed description of what forcing my way forward felt like. At one moment, I was filled with hope, anticipating a quick rejoining of the “normal” world. The next afternoon, I would be tearfully hunched on the floor, massaging my feet, lamenting the plantar fasciitis that would never get better and all the activities I would never be able to enjoy, lost in complete despair. Every step was a struggle. Literally. With the dedicated, compassionate help of my therapist, my psychiatrist, and some close friends, I continued to place one foot in front of another. Their patience, diligence, and empathy were astounding, especially when considered in retrospect. I was panicky, needy, and often unreasonable or irrational. The journey was slow and agonizing, but by the end of the summer, I was able to walk without pain. Likewise, the lingering symptoms from my year-long war with a chronic, relentless gastrointestinal illness were finally, miraculously abating, almost exactly a year after my treatments themselves concluded.

After coming through those trials, I find myself with increased confidence and a foundation upon which to build my hope. Whatever disruption, inconvenience, or discomfort may arise, I know that it is but a little swell in the great sea of life. I know that I am adaptable, and that I can change with the season. After weathering one storm, I understand what it feels like to be tossed about, and I know how to tolerate that distress. I know that the storms don’t last. Yes, transitions are hard – even the good ones. For those of you who may be struggling with a transition, big or small, know that the sun is coming out again. It’s a warm, radiant, spring sun. It’s just hidden behind the stormy clouds.

Welcome, spring!

“For I know well the plans I have in mind for you – oracle of the Lord – plans for your welfare and not for woe, so as to give you a future of hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11)

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duckling,” © kittykat2682 (own work), December 2010. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)