Before the Kindness Challenge – To Reignite the Inner Light

Featured Image:  “Candle” © Walt Stoneburner (own work), Oct 2011. CC BY 2.0. (license)

In the current chaos of my life, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. My little raft is tossing about on some pretty turbulent and stormy waters, and sometimes it feels like all I can do is hold fast. At times, it even feels as though I’m already overboard, and I’m just clinging to the lines, choking on salt spray, and struggling to drag myself out of the waves. As my fingers tip-tap over the keys today, I am floating through a momentary calm. My emotions are steady, my breathing is easier, and my friends are close at heart. However, it’s hurricane season in my metaphorical ocean. I know that there will be more storms to weather before all the present uncertainty works itself out.

The challenges that I am confronting right now are difficult and triggering in an unfamiliar way. The last time I felt remotely similar, I was still at Walden undergoing partial hospitalization treatment for my eating disorder. As days become weeks and weeks coalesce into months, the emotional and psychological demands of the evolving circumstances become increasingly taxing. The acuity and extremity of the stress makes it hard for me to access and utilize the skills that I didn’t realize were becoming lax with disuse. Incorporating elements of mindfulness, dialectical thinking, CBT, and the other tools that I once practiced diligently into my daily life means that I don’t pay as much attention to the focused, attentive, and deliberate training that it required to build those habits. When I am in crisis, I can’t recall how I once managed distress tolerance. When my emotions are roiling out of control, I know that I am in desperate need of emotional regulation, but I don’t remember how to do it.

In addition to the pain that I experience on account of the uncertainty of life, there is the pain of my secondary emotions. I am upset about being upset, and I am frustrated that I am frustrated, and I am angry because I am angry. Such secondary emotions only deepen the darkness and tip me closer to despair. That is one reason why I am grateful for the first annual Kindness Challenge. It couldn’t be more appropriately timed. Just as I feel the light in me flickering unsteadily, here is a choice to pursue a different course. A course of kindness. A choice for life. I hope that, no matter what occurs over the next seven weeks, I can embrace this challenge and nurture that little flicker in my heart.

#RevofKindness #bekind

“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience…And over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection. And let the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace into which you were also called in one body. And be thankful.”

~ Colossians 3:12,14-15

kindnesschallenge

Riding the Rails

Featured Image:  “Derail, Mississippi,” © The Spider Hill (own work), May 2010. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

A casual scroll through the dates of my last postings will reveal my dwindling blog activity. The truth is that I am struggling…

About a month ago, my understanding of my world abruptly crashed, leaving a field of chaos like so many shards of a broken mirror. Splintered fragments were all that remained of the smooth, silvery, reflective glass that was safely shielding me from needing to confront the tumultuous realities of my very uncertain position in life. The truth was always present, floating just behind the veil. I chose not to focus on it. Instead, I passed the last year looking through a beautiful kaleidoscope of color, perceiving, for the first time in my life, the stunning beauty all around me. Despite the jagged edges of my bumpy, twisting recovery, I found joy and gratitude in the vibrancy that I newly appreciated. To be sure, I was aware of a degree of unpredictability and uncontrollability. I knew that I could not know my future. Yet, I took for granted a certain stability and sameness in my work, my surroundings, my community, my family and friends… and I was deeply thankful for it. “No major changes in the first year,” a confidant with experience in counseling people recovering from alcohol and substance abuse repeatedly advised me. It was reassuring and comforting to rest in a relatively constant landscape while taking my first tentative steps into recovery. After a young lifetime marred by depression, anxiety, suicidality, disordered eating, and instability, a single year of stability was a blessing and a great gift. Yet, it was a gift I tended to not examine too closely, for when I did peer into that distorting magnifying glass, the tingles of fear began to prickle in my fingers and creep upwards into my hands, inching gradually toward my center… the fear of loss.

Not enough time! Not yet! I need more time! That was my first response when I received the news. After six years in the same cozy, comfortable, townhouse-style apartment in Vanillasville and three years in the same relaxed, flexible professional assignment, I received an email from HR that would derail my recovery and launch my emotions on a bullet train over terrain resembling the Alps, my body dragging along behind, hurtling haphazardly along the rocky landscape, bouncing against the unforgiving outcroppings, becoming more and more broken with each racing turn or screaming descent. Directly, the email stated, “Respond by the end of the business day tomorrow with your preference between the following three locations. You will be relocated this summer.” Two of the spots were in distant states and one was overseas.

To my credit, my panic did not settle in immediately. Initially, I told myself, There must be some sort of mistake. Or, at least there must be some sort of other option, some avenue that will allow me to stay where I am. It was a few hours later, after several fruitless, initial attempts to obtain more information and to express my desire to NOT return to the pressured, intense, demanding, competitive, workaholic, political, miserable world from which I escaped three years ago, that the bullet train of anxiety shot away from its platform and out of the station. Gracefully, mercifully, after two days of sleeplessness, palpitations, breathlessness, and a sensation of daggers driving into my stomach, and with the merciful, compassionate assistance of my colleagues and supervisors, HR relented. “But,” the representative declared to me on the phone, “Get ready. Because I guarantee you with 100% certainty, that you will be relocated next summer.” For another two days, my breathing was easier, but the train never returned to the station.

Speed2
Speed,” © John Georgiou (own work), Apr 2009. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

Nothing changed, I told myself. There is nothing different about my life now, about me now. It is all the same. Physically, tangibly, concretely, these statements were true. However, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, everything was different. And I hated myself that it was so. HATED myself. Because, it shouldn’t be that way. Where were my skills? Where was the faith and trust in God that I thought I was cultivating? As I moved from anxiety through depression, anhedonia, anger, and irritability, I found my thoughts spiraling into familiar and detested territory – self-shame, blame, and judgment. In the small journal where I recorded my daily bodily sensations/hunger/fullness and the thoughts streaming through my mind during meal times, an unhappy pattern crept into my reflections. I hate myself. I’m a failure. My insight enabled me to recognize the pathology of these thoughts, and I despaired for entertaining them. With my emotions swinging wildly and my mentation becoming increasingly catastrophic, alarming, all-or-nothing, and black-and-white, impulses and urges to use food as a comfort arrived almost imperceptibly. Rationalizations and justifications to engage in emotional eating abounded. Confusion and internal conflict were my daily diet.

Confusion… because I didn’t binge. I didn’t restrict. I didn’t over-exercise. I told myself that I was failing, and I told myself that I was unable to use my skills, yet I reached out. I demanded help. I curled up in a ball on my therapist’s sofa and cried for an hour, took a day off from work to dedicate to self-care, and exhaled a long sigh. Within days, I was acting out, ranting in a way that terrified me. I passed a long weekend visiting Alice for her daughter’s second birthday. I journaled for days about my lack of faith and how I detested myself for my inability to trust in God’s goodness. I lamented my fear of pain and future disaster, which was destroying my present happiness. Then, I made an appointment to speak to my parish priest, challenging my own distorted ideas about God, blame, punishment, worthiness, forgiveness, love, and life. He gently listened, without dismissing any of my concerns, he appreciated my anxieties and normalized my doubts, and then, without judgment, he offered his wisdom, understanding, and what reassurance he could give, telling me that we would meet again as often as I needed. I left his office with a sense of peace and safety, only to lapse into my chaotic cycle again a day or two later. Up and down. Back and forth. Around, backwards, sideways, and upended.

One Monday at 11:30pm, in tears, I called my childhood friend, Rachel, after eating two desserts. Of course, there was more to the story. I was away at our industry’s annual, international conference, and I was out with a group of close colleagues. We were enjoying a raucously good time. I lost track of how often I pitched my head back and released a full-bodied laugh that shook every muscle. When was the last time that I was raucous? When was the last time I allowed myself to be loud, rambunctious, and uninhibited? It was uncomfortable. It was just like the “old me.” I ate a dinner that was perfectly fitting for my meal plan. Then, instead of turning into bed for a solid night of rest, I convinced my friends that a late-night dessert would be a wonderful idea. And then, I ate two. DON’T I CARE?!!! WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME?!!! I demanded of myself. It was “just like” that person I “used to be.” The girl that drank and partied, stopped for pizza with the gang at Jumbo Slice at 1 am after one too many in Adams Morgan or ordered Chinese food in the post-midnight, pre-dawn hours before falling asleep on Alexandra’s couch when she couldn’t make it back to her dorm. It reminded me of the self who was out-of-control, who stayed up too late, and who woke up hung-over. Self-hatred, remorse, and shame as thick as a blanket of nails wrapped around me. “You don’t understand…” “Yeah, but…” I replied antagonistically to Rachel’s reasonable questions and encouragements. There was that hyper-reactionary, emotional, catastrophic, inflexible, panicked, intractable thinking again. “I know I’m being irrational!” I sobbed. “I know I’m being moody and irritable and dramatic.” What I didn’t know was what to do about it.

Am I worse? Am I failing? How bad is this going to get? When is my descent going to stop? Where? What sort of shape am I going to be in by the time I finally get my feet under me again? How do I slow the train? I want to get off.

On Tuesday morning, I delivered an expertly crafted (if I do say so myself, which I do) presentation to a packed room. Of all the people composing the panel on which I sat, my talk generated the most questions, and I responded to each one, unfazed.

On Tuesday afternoon, I checked in with my therapist. Surely she noticed the marked changes in my moods, my language, and my behavior. “Yes,” she admitted. I confessed that I didn’t trust my own judgment. I catastrophize too much. How do I know if I am really falling? I tell myself that my life is off-the-rails. Is it even true? WHAT DO I DO?! SOMEONE DO SOMETHING! I went for a walk on the beach. I smiled at strangers and exchanged kind words with people at bus stops and on park benches. I attended mass. I breathed in. I sighed out. For the remainder of the week, I isolated myself in my hotel room when not attending the conference, and by Thursday, I was so lonely that I joined three of my closest friends from work at the hotel buffet. I was unabashedly direct. “A buffet is probably not the best place for a binge eater,” I told them. They gave me their support, just as always. And I ate a meal that fit nicely into my meal plan, just as always. We laughed. I breathed in. I sighed out.

There are no answers right now. Just as there are no answers as to what I will be doing or where I will be living a year from now. So, I wait. I wake up every morning, and I try again. I ride the rails. I don’t know where they lead. I go for mindful walks, I meet with my nutritionist, I confide in my supports. I participate in yoga class, and even when I am feeling depressed, I make an effort to get myself to the gym. I follow my meal plan. I tell myself, Just do what you can.

Ad astra per aspera.

Reach for the Stars
Reach for the Stars,” © Tony Beverely (own work), Sep 2014. 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 Ripple Effect

Featured Image: “Flowers,” © Anne Helmond (own work), October 2011. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

Several days ago, a constellation of circumstances coincided that prodded my little mind to begin agitating like the trusty, top-loading washer that I bought on sale from Sears when I moved into my first “grown up” apartment. One event rotated through my thoughts, then another, and glistening bubbles began to break open on the water’s flat, unassuming surface. Each one was effervescent and shiny, reflecting rainbows of light across a delicate, tense, shifting film of shimmering soap. If I tried to hold onto any slight notion too tightly, it vanished with a soft “pop,” leaving me with nothing but an eye of soapy water. With a slow blink, I gazed again at the rising suds as they coalesced…

Something was stirring… as the tiny ripples of many disparate eventualities effervesced, their distinctive rainbows mingling into radiant beams…

Many weeks ago, my friend, Nel, sent me a small arrangement of flowers. There was a bit of hassle involved in the delivery, due to the conflicting schedules of the florist van driver and me, but in the end, it all worked out. The delivery person left the flowers in the leasing office of the apartment complex where I live, and I picked them up the following day. Of the three women who work as property managers, Lisa was the only one there that day. I explained that the flowers were from a friend back home and read the attached card, “Something beautiful for someone beautiful.”

“Aw, that’s so sweet,” Lisa observed, sentimentally. Then, with a hint of wistfulness, she added, “Nobody ever sends me flowers.” There was a twinge at my heartstrings as she spoke and a single, pizzicato note reverberated into the universe. I really should buy her some flowers, I thought.

That good intention succumbed to the busyness of my routine, the other demands of my life, this errand, and that whim. I was always pressed for time; I always produced some other excuse. I always told myself, Tomorrow, or The next time, or Today just isn’t a good day. Deep down, there was also the fear of how such an overture might be received. What would Lisa think? Would she think that I wanted some favor? Would she think that I was crazy?

Often, I tell myself that I am an obnoxious, irritating, and demanding tenant. I tell myself that the management staff consider me a difficult and unreasonable person. On more than one occasion in the past six years, Lisa and her two colleagues, Cindy and Mara, as well as the very kind and responsive maintenance worker, Hal, were exposed to me hovering at a rather heightened pitch of existence as I attempted to manage rather monumental and prolonged life stressors. At times, my abilities to cope and self-soothe were less-than-ideal. Although at other opportunities, I always paused time to smile and chat, to ask about their days and their weekend plans, or to inquire about their families, my self-portrait resembled a shrill, shrewish woman, unhinged and unbalanced. Would they just think I was trying to make up for being so high-strung and neurotic?

Then, on an unremarkable Tuesday afternoon, I was picking up yet another box (after ordering yet another book). Mara looked like she was coming to the end of a very rough day. Her face was tired and lined, and even though her eyeshadow twinkled and she smiled pleasantly, the slump of her shoulders betrayed the truth behind her cheerful, “Hello!” I remarked on the sunshine outside and the fact that in fifteen minutes she could leave the office behind to drink up the beautiful weather. She sighed, the corners of her mouth turning up a bit, but her shoulders collapsed even more. I remembered my intention to buy flowers for Lisa, and it occurred to me that Mara could probably use some flowers to brighten her day, too.

bubbles
bubbles,” © tim (own work), October 2007. CC BY 2.0. (license)

My compassion for Mara and Lisa might very well have died right there. However, the very next day, another happenstance stirred my too-often shallow, self-absorbed heart. I was perusing a story about living with integrity written by the talented Eli Pacheco on his wonderful Coach Daddy blog. I felt the inspiration to recommit myself to the LIVING of my values, and I told Eli as much in a responding comment. Driving to work, I entertained myself with contemplations of love, compassion, empathy, and wholeheartedness… and within an hour of sitting at my desk, the distractions of the day drove out all of those blissful ideals.

On my lunch break, without reason, but possibly because I was feeling even more weary and depressed than usual, I decided to head home rather than adhere to my usual routine of eating at my desk. It was only because I stepped away from the office that I thumbed my cellphone off of “airplane mode,” and skimmed my WordPress alerts. There was a message from Eli. “I want to know how your day goes!” it read. Weird, I thought. Why would Eli care about my day? It took a solid minute or two of scrolling to remember the post from the morning and to recall its impact on me at 6am. Finally, the soapy water was starting to froth.

At the end of the day, how am I going to leave the world a better place than I found it this morning? I asked myself. I sat with this question all afternoon. As I made my way home, the song playing on the strings of my heart sounded like, “Flowers for Lisa, Cindy, and Mara. Buy flowers. They might need cheering up.” All of my reasons against this course of action percolated under the surface, but I chose to follow the path of vulnerability instead. At the market down the street, I found three small pots of blooms, one yellow, one orange, and one a vibrant purple. Tentatively, I parked the car in front of the leasing office, and precipitously balancing the pots in my petite hands, I stepped over the threshold.

As it turned out, Mara wasn’t the only one who was exhausted and overworked. They were all busy and burdened with the many demands of multiple spring move-ins and move-outs. Mara explained that her son was on mid-semester break, and she was planning to take vacation to spend time at home with him, but given the demands in the office, she didn’t think she would be able to get away. I think it meant something to them that someone took the time to notice them, to ask how they were doing, and to care. The bright flowers were a bright spot in their day, which became a bright spot in my day.

Turning to leave, I couldn’t help but marvel at the chain of happenchance that resulted in a single, shared moment. Isn’t it wonderful, I thought, the effects that can manifest from one, seemingly insignificant act of kindness? In my mind, Nel and Eli deserved equal credit for planting the seeds of compassion and connection that peeked forth a tender, green shoot that afternoon.

Today, I am making an extra effort to smile at every person I pass. Maybe that person will smile at the next person, who will smile at the next person, who will change the life of someone in need.

Echinops Bubble
Echinops Bubble,” © Tom Blackwell (own work), September 2010. CC BY-NC 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)

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

Joy in a Broken Window

Featured Image: “Snowy Highway,” © Taber Andrew Bain (own work), December 2007. CC BY 2.0. (license)

As I type away, I am gazing out the big picture window of a downtown coffee shop. The street beyond is drowning in sunlight. The temperatures outside are expected to reach 60⁰F (15.5 C) this afternoon, and the sidewalk is full of people drinking up the first sips of spring. Yet, the forecast for the week ahead includes, of all things, more snow.

Just a mere three days ago, the fluffy white stuff was falling gracefully from a cloud-obscured sky while I drove along my morning commute. I rolled down the automatic window to greet the gate attendant as I entered the complex enclosing my office building, and as I pulled up on the little, black button to raise the glass again, I heard a tremendous crashing sound from the door. “Please tell me that was a rock kicked up by another car,” I thought to myself. There were no passing cars, though, and I knew that something was broken. I pushed the button down again, apprehensively. The electric motor made a strained, whirring sound, but the pane lowered all the way. When I pulled up once more, the whirring gave way to a choked clank, and the window stuck halfway. The gentle, wet snow continued to swirl toward the earth as I drove slowly onward. A few stray flakes fluttered onto my lap as an icy wind stung my eyes.

My first reaction was to think, “It happens. The car is eight years old, after all. Stuff breaks.” I pulled into a parking space, the wind whipping across the crest of the hill and through the open gap. “Good thing I know where we keep the heavy-duty garbage bags. Really good thing I borrowed that packaging tape from J the other day! I bet neither of us would’ve guessed I’d be using it to tape a trash bag over my window!” I mused. Locking the door, the irony of the action bemusing me, I continued my inner contemplations. “It’s still really early. Maybe the dealership will have service appointments available today if I call right away. Good thing work is slow this week, and my schedule is so flexible. Maybe the repair guys can pop that huge ding out of the passenger side while they’re fixing the window!” Someone with a white door inflicted quite the dent into the dark blue mental of my front right a few weeks ago, and I was meaning to call for an estimate on that repair, anyway. My imagination chugged on. “If it won’t take long, I could just wait while they work. I could sit at the dealership and read my book! That would be way better than work. They have free coffee there!” It surprised me that I was in such a good mood given the moisture that was collecting on my leather seats and the money that I was about to shell out. Even the negative “Oh no!” reactions of my coworkers when I told them what happened couldn’t dampen the glow of joy and gratitude in my heart.

It turned out that there were indeed service appointments available at the dealership that very morning. Driving along the highway in the far right lane, trying to limit merging as best I could, intermittently craning my head to look over my left shoulder and ducking low to peer out the half-glass at the bottom of the window, I tried to tune out the deafening noise of the double-layered black trash bag buffeting against the air currents. “This really isn’t too bad, I permitted. “I’m remarkably warm and dry for being protected by just these two, thin sheets of plastic.” There weren’t many people on the road, thankfully. The wintry landscape to either side of the highway was picturesque, and I reveled in its stunning beauty. Peace, joy, and gratitude washed over me.

It occurred to me that a busted car window was more of an inconvenience than an actual suffering. Nothing truly bad happened, and I wasn’t afflicted with any pain or loss. Yet, it also dawned on me that in the not-too-distant past, even such relatively simple inconveniences threw me into fits of anxiety and distress. Instead, on that day, I viewed my broken window as an odd but marvelous gift. I wondered if my sense of calm and my ability to find delight in my circumstances was similar in some small, barely-related manner, to what so many holy people described when reflecting on the joy they found in the hardships they experienced when they were living a life dedicated to love, service, and Christ. I certainly would never begin to draw any parallels between my broken car window and their lives, by any means. The situations couldn’t be more disparate. There was no sacrifice involved on my part in leaving work for a morning to drive to the auto dealer. I definitely wasn’t serving some higher purpose or worthy cause. Yet, there was something loving and accepting in my heart that morning, and it made all the difference. I found myself wondering… It must start somewhere, right? Even if it is such a little thing?

 “Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.”

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Day 126 - For Rob
Day 126 – For Rob…” © Kate Sumbler (own work), February 2007. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

The Grapes of Recovery

Featured Image: “and more fruits,” © jACK TWO (own work), April 2009. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license available here)

On just about any Saturday morning when I’m in town and not traveling, you can predict my routine with fair reliability. I wake up early and start the laundry. I head downstairs and prepare breakfast for two (Pangur Ban, the cat, and me). With either smooth jazz tunes or ‘90s French pop music playing in the background, I swish awkwardly around my kitchen. Pangur Ban doesn’t seem to mind that I can’t dance. Or sing. In fairness, he can’t dance or sing either, and I don’t hold it against him. After breakfast, I generally rush out the door, and in under ten minutes I am in the yoga studio rolling out my mat as the rest of the class begins the first flow of practice. A snack consistently follows yoga (always a Kind bar), and the morning concludes with a trip to the nearby grocery. There, I peruse the plethora of produce with child-like curiosity, marveling at rutabagas, star fruits, colorful chard with stems of pink, yellow, and orange, a half dozen varieties of pears and potatoes… and I proceed to place the exact same items in my cart every week. Cucumbers? Check. Red and yellow bell peppers? Check. Arugula? Check. Apples? Double check. Carrots? Hmmmm…. nah. I don’t eat those up very quickly. Snow peas? Ok. Parsnips? I love the flavor of roasted parsnips… but maybe next time. Roasting vegetables is still a bit too intimidating. Grapes? … … … … someday?

Ickworth Vineyard
Ickworth Vineyard,” © Dave Catchpole (own work), October 2012. CC BY 2.0.
Well, it turned out that “someday” was February 6th. It seemed as if I was taking inventory of my standard produce haul and making tracks toward the case of soy milk and Greek yogurt when, in the turn of an instant, I was suddenly plucking a big bunch of grapes up by their twiggy stem. The cooler of grapes sat directly beside the path of my cart as I aimed for the dairy, but that never stopped me from breezing by it before without more than a microsecond’s hesitation.

There’s something going on here that reaches beyond buying a cluster of purple fruit. If you read some of my past blog entries (“Um, Excuse Me, But I ATE A POTATO!” or “A Moment in a Pear”), you know that introducing variety into my eating routine is not easy for me. My list of safe foods is much longer now than the approximately ten items it encompassed when I entered partial, but the number of things I won’t eat far exceeds what I will. So, I find myself wondering… what gives?

A few weeks after I left Walden, I bought a box of rice to serve with a recipe that I was attempting for a Super Bowl party to which I happened to be invited. The easy solution to my lack of control over the food served would be to not attend, but isolating was what I did when I was engaged in my eating disorder. Instead, I was preparing a vegetable curry. It was a recipe given to me by my nutritionist, and I knew the exact exchanges in a single serving. At least there would be one safe side for me. When I bought the box of rice, I knew that I would never finish the remainder of it. Then, one day, I was just plain bored of the same old starch I nearly always paired with dinner, and I reached into the pantry for the rice. I wouldn’t claim to be entirely comfortable eating it on a regular basis, but as a change-up now or then, it turned out to be not so bad. It wasn’t that the taste ever dissuaded me. I was paralyzed by the fear of the food itself lacking any significant nutritive qualities and consisting of “empty calories,” which would just “make me fat.” Well, I didn’t gain weight when I introduced occasional rice into my diet. As for the nutritional content, I remained dubious, but I trusted my nutritionist, Kelly, who reached over-the-moon enthusiasm with each new food I risked. She constantly reminded me that by varying my consumption, I was obtaining copious nutrients that were lacking when I was deep into my orthorexia, and she celebrated my healthiness.

The berry family presented another big hurdle. Beginning with cherries in July, Kelly spent about ten minutes of each appointment reviewing what would be ripening next and encouraging (i.e., humorously cajoling) me to push my boundaries. As summer transitioned to autumn and the string of holidays approached, I slid back into my habitual patterns. Kelly began bemoaning, “the same things again,” as she read out of my food journal every two weeks. At the time, I was a bit frustrated with her. Didn’t she see that I ate a Nutrigrain bar instead of a Kind bar on Tuesday? Didn’t she see that I ate steak when I went out for dinner last Saturday night? However, I could also acknowledge that I wasn’t trying new foods at the same pace that I was when a variety of fresh fruits and veggies were available to me in abundance. We both accepted that, in many ways, I was gritting it out through November, December, and January.

Several weeks ago, there was a beautiful display of pineapples by the entrance to the supermarket. It was unavoidable, and it was captivating. The prickly skin and sweet, tropical smell teased me with promises of warm, summer sun. I circled the table, daydreaming of beaches and sidewalk cafés. Picking up a pineapple, I ran my fingers cautiously over its rough skin. Squeezing it gently, I shook it a bit. I don’t even know how to tell if it’s ripe, I realized. Smiling to myself, I carefully chose a smaller one with a healthy-looking stem and gingerly settled it into my cart as if it was some fragile, precious artifact. Once in my apartment, though, it sat untouched on my kitchen counter for three days. Each time I glanced at it, I felt the pressure to DO something with it followed by an underlying dread. Eating pineapple was one thing. Getting TO the pineapple was an entirely separate issue. Finally, I decided that if I didn’t cut it up, it was destined for the dumpster, and I couldn’t bring myself to treat my beautiful pineapple so callously. With a determination that aborted my over-analysis, I plopped it on a bamboo board and sliced into it with my largest kitchen knife. Strip by strip, the prickles and spikes gave way to reveal juicy, yellow flesh. I was convinced that the success of the result was that much sweeter for the effort.

Untitled - pineapple
Untitled, © James Folley (own work), April 2015. CC BY 2.0.
Before I could leave Walden, my treatment team set a hurdle before me. Eat an actual meal in an actual restaurant, while following my meal plan, without binging. I couldn’t remember if I was ever, in my entire life, able to dine out without either starving or over-stuffing myself, and it was ages since I did so without a full-on binge. The anxiety, apprehension, and distress that I experienced as I planned my approach and confronted that obstacle resembled one prolonged panic attack. For a while, eating out was something that I did mainly under Kelly’s coercion and out of my desperation for social interaction. Many, many restaurant meals later, I found myself a bit more comfortable. It wasn’t necessarily a transition that was obvious to me, but it didn’t go unnoticed by my friend, Amelia. “I can see the changes,” she told me, and I believed her, because she was attentive enough to detail to call me out when I tried to order the same dish I tried three months earlier. No repeats. Then, I made a statement to my therapist that only struck me as funny and weird in retrospect. “It’s great!” I grinned as I described the every-other-week-or-so pattern of eating out that Amelia and I found ourselves falling into. “We are discovering all these little, independently owned places with seasonal menus and fresh, local ingredients. I’m such a terrible cook. It’s the one time that I get to try new foods that are really well prepared!” It wasn’t until much later that it occurred to me what a shift in perspective this thinking represented.

Not long ago, I described one of those dinners in a post about the apprehension provoked by a challenging menu. The fanciful language and disproportionate number of pasta offerings unwound me. The meal and the evening ended up becoming one of my favorite nights out in recent memory, but I was a little disappointed in myself for shirking the noodles. I was so close to that leap of faith, I could feel myself dangling my toes over the ledge… and four days ago I took the plunge. Even with my lack of kitchen skills, I managed to prepare the whole wheat rotini while allowing the water to boil over the sides of the pot only once. What surprised me the most was how very little a half cup of pasta actually appeared on my plate after I measured it out. One little handful of slippery starch. That was what I was so worried about for all those years? Tossed with a hint of olive oil, a pinch of salt, and some sautéed shrimp (which I also cooked myself!), it was delectable! It would be another matter to order pasta in a restaurant, where I might be more likely to receive a mound of spaghetti heaped onto the plate. But, just like the rice last year, it was a start.

The list of foods I am willing to try and the spontaneity with which I will try them continues to grow. Sausage, lamb, and beef tenderloin. Macadamia nuts. Kefir. What I really want is to be comfortable enough with food to travel abroad again. Kelly tells me that if I want to go to Paris, I need to eat baguettes. And butter. And maybe a croissant. Um, yeah. Yet, who knows? There is a small, chef-owned French restaurant two towns over that I hear serves amazing moules et pommes frites.

Another weekend will be here in the blink of an eye, and I’ll be off to the grocery store once more. I wonder what I will return home with this time.

moules frites
moules frites,” © Merle ja Joonas (own work), September 2014. CC BY-ND 2.0. (license available here)

Ode to Mustard

Featured Image: “Whole Grain Stout Mustard,” © Susy Morris, May 2011. CC BY-NC 2.0.

A few weeks ago, Laura Bruno Lilly reminded me that not every blog post must be a deep, existential, soul-searching exploration of my past, present, and future or the state of the human condition. For that, I am grateful; and in that spirit, here is my ode to mustard.

When I was little, mustard was my absolute favorite condiment. In fact, it was my only condiment. Ketchup? Blech! Not for this girl. I put mustard on everything. Sandwiches, hot dogs, hamburgers, eggs, the Easter ham. I would even smear mustard on slices of hard cheese for an afternoon snack. The mustard stains on the sleeves of all of my weekend clothes was a testament to my passion. When I was wrapped up in my orthorexia, mustard was a definite no-no, if for no other reason than it seemed extemporaneous and I wouldn’t afford the now-seemingly-inconsequential extra calories. Yet, I never forgot the taste of mustard. When I was in Boston participating in a partial hospitalization program and living with my friend Veronica and her husband, there was mustard in the refrigerator door, waiting patiently for me.

Oh, mustard! I love your zest! Your pungence! Your garish yellowness! From the simple mustard of my youth to the spicy browns and French Dijons currently occupying places in my fridge and on my palate, you never fail me. How could I have ever thought your flavor not worthwhile? Oh, mustard! I’m glad I found you again. Let us never again be apart!

Bee on mustard
Bee on mustard,” © Meg Lauber, May 2008. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

A New Kind of Valentine

Featured Image: “Mt Edgecumbe Flowers,” © Rob Wright (own work), July 2011. CC BY-NC 2.0.

Over the last few days, I read many wonderful reflections about Valentine’s Day written by so many talented and thoughtful people. There were poems, letters, treatises, quotations, and photographs. My favorite pieces were written by Sanny Spear (“How many likes do you need to like yourself?”) and Ashley Wilson Fellers (“Five Little Reminders for You, On Valentine’s Day”). (Go read them!). Although Valentine’s Day came and went, I wanted to share my own, small voice on the subject.

Oh, Valentine’s Day. A friend of mine jokingly refers to this occasion as “Singles Awareness Day.” I have a new name for Valentine’s Day, though. I-Love-Me Day. Here is the story of my second annual I-Love-Me Day and the history behind it.

What could be worse than an entire holiday dedicated to true love (or at least expertly marketed that way), for a perpetually single, lonely, unhappy person? Actually, pretty much any special event that might be enjoyed with a special someone, like a birthday, Christmas, Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July, Labor Day, Saturday… During all those long years of untreated depression, any event was an invitation to self-pity. When I first sought mental health treatment for my mood disorder, in the midst of an acute adjustment crisis precipitated by some very traumatic life events, my personality testing revealed some “problem areas.” My cognitive behavioral therapist chose his words carefully. If I really wanted to improve, I was going to need to delve deep into my core, into the very framework of my being, to the foundations of my personality that were laid in infancy and built upon through childhood, adolescence, and on which I continued to construct. The basement was shoddy, dug in unstable ground, cracked and leaking, and the framework around it was all catawampus. I was going to need to dance with some very old, very scary skeletons, to shine a light into some dark corners while not entirely knowing what lurked out of sight. I remember my reaction as clearly as if it all unfolded yesterday. After thirty years of coping, what difference did it make? I wanted some survival skills to improve just enough to pull myself back from the precipice I was approaching. “Um, no thanks!” I replied, overly chipper. “Maybe we could just do some basic CBT so I can learn tools to help me be not quite so depressed.” I figured that I would be satisfied if I could return to my previous status quo. I didn’t know any other way of being. Oh, naiveté. What a blessing. I was about to go to places that I didn’t know existed in the depths of my mind and soul and open sealed trunks that I didn’t remember shutting. Before the rebuilding came the demolition, and it turned out that I had less choice in the matter than I presumed.

Ruined Steps
Ruined Steps,” © Chris Samuel (own work), January 2011. CC BY 2.0.

That girl, the depressed, driven, anxious, perfectionistic, never-enough, super-achieving, relentless, angry, resentful, hurting, fragmented person, was the one who loathed Valentine’s Day. Every February 14th delivered a fresh wound. Not only did I pick at the scabs, but I twisted the knives deeper and deeper into my chest with my own hand. Not once did I ever make plans, reach out, or consider anyone other than myself. Yet, when I wasn’t remembered and pitied by family and friends, I stewed in bitterness. At least my own parents ought to send me flowers! I thought. They have each other, and I have nobody. And I never will. At the risk of sounding too all-or-nothing and self-deprecating, even then, I could be thoughtful, sweet, and generous. But not on Valentine’s Day. On that day, I was toxic. I wasn’t yet able to recognize the distortions in my thinking that influenced my mood and behavior and contributed to my isolation and misery.

Part of the problem was that I wholly believed a lie promulgated by society and by many very well-meaning people in my life. I thought that my life would dramatically change for the better if I found love, or at if I was in a relationship. How many times did I hear, “The right person is out there for you,” and “It will happen when you least expect it.” There was always a bit of conflict in my heart, though, when those conversations arose, because, a) I didn’t believe such unsubstantiated and trite statements, and b) I was never certain that I wanted to marry. I was pretty sure from a very young age that I didn’t want to raise children. It just didn’t feel right. The idea made me uneasy, as though I was called toward some different path. I wasn’t opposed to the idea of marriage and raising a family. If it happened, that would be wonderful, but if it didn’t, that would be wonderful, too. It was while I was undergoing partial hospitalization treatment for my eating disorder that I realized it was okay to feel that way. A funny thing happened when I explained to my friends the new sense of fulfillment and enjoyment I discovered through cultivating my other meaningful relationships and exploring what it meant to live wholeheartedly. Suddenly, they thought my single life was fine as it was, and the pressure to date stopped!

Along came Valentine’s Day 2015. The message on the marker board at Walden on January 1st read, “Let 2015 be the year you start moving away from external validation and moving toward internal validation,” and I began to learn that I didn’t need anyone else to tell me that I was worthy of love. Thus, I-Love-Me Day was born. My little acts of self-care didn’t amount to much at first glance, but it was the attitude behind them that made the fundamental difference. Several weeks in advance, I ordered myself a dozen roses, to be delivered a few days before the big occasion. The fourteenth was a Saturday, so I purchased a plane ticket home for the weekend. Who wants to be alone for I-Love-Me Day? Love is meant to be SHARED! Of course, home is Connecticut. Of course, it snowed. Yet, it was beautiful snow. I thrilled at that lovely, fluffy, white stuff from the other side of a picture window, inside the warmth of a house filled with people, while I painted my nails and wrote Valentine’s cards to all of my friends, far and wide. I covered the stationary with glitter and with pink and red hearts. Considering the fact that I penned those notes on Valentine’s Day itself, I knew they would all arrived at their destinations a week late, but I embraced my imperfection, expressed my apologies along with my affection, and imagined someone cheerfully discovering an unexpected, belated Valentine on a random Thursday. I spent time with friends from high school, and I returned to Vanillasville brimming with gratitude and joy.

Soar
Soar,” © Dr. Wendy Longo (own work), September 2007. CC-BY-ND 2.0.

It was with eager anticipation that I looked forward to this Valentine’s Day. I ordered myself another dozen roses (yellow this time), and booked my flights. Around the middle of January, I noticed a particular sweater in the window of the clothing store next to one of my favorite coffee shops. It was heather gray with multi-colored little hearts in several rows along the scoop neck. It was perfect! This year, I managed to mail out most of my glittery greeting cards with at least two days to spare (although some are still un-mailed on my counter… I’m simply spreading out the love). During the days preceding my departure, I took so much delight in the thought of my second I-Love-Me Day that I never experienced the teensy bit of angst and apprehension that would typically pester me before any trip. Instead of perseverating over the laundry to be done and the messy state of the apartment, worrying about packing, ruminating on what I would eat, and repeatedly planning my schedule down to the minute, I told myself, It’s my I-Love-Me Day. It’s all okay. I never get the house cleaned before I leave on any of my trips anyway, so why bother about it? Everything will work out one way or another, just like always. And it did. I gave the driver of the airport shuttle an exorbitant tip simply because I could. I decided not to paint my nails simply because I didn’t want to. I stayed at a familiar hotel, where, despite sub-zero temperatures, I remained toasty warm. Each night, I took extra-hot showers for an extra-long time and then fell asleep extra-early on an extra-soft mattress. Confession – I wore my special sweater for two days in a row. On Saturday, I passed the entire day with wonderful friends. We made an excursion to the Children’s Museum, rode the train back from the city, and chatted away all afternoon. Sunday dawned cold and bright. After a bit of a sunny drive, I found myself enjoying lunch with another precious friend and sharing apple crisp à la mode. When we were finished, our waitress even brought us two long-stem roses. An unexpected treat! It was not as though the entire weekend was without bumps and hiccups, but they each seemed rather inconsequential when the tape deck in my head was playing, I-Love-Me Day, I-Love-Me Day, Oh how I love I-Love-Me Day over and over.

Now that I’m back, and my routine is creeping into my life once more, I am wondering, why can’t I-Love-Me-Day be I-Love-Me Week? How long can I make this last? There is still a pack of Hallmark cards awaiting a pen stroke or two. Maybe I will stop at the florist on the way home from the post office for another colorful bouquet. Perhaps tomorrow is the day that I will feel like painting my nails…

Pink Ones
Pink Ones,” © William (own work), June 2010. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

The Centering

Featured Image: “Inauguración Tempus Cuaresma 57,” © NELO Mijangos, Feb 2015. CC BY-NC 2.0.

At some point tomorrow, I will find myself at mass for Ash Wednesday, to mark the beginning of the Lenten season. I am telling myself that I will attend the morning service at 7 am, but being realistic, I know that making it to my office by 8 o’clock on a daily basis is a struggle. Fortunately, there is another service in the evening. I’m looking forward to this Lent with a great deal of eagerness and anticipation. Does that seem strange, especially for someone with an eating disorder? After all, Lent is a penitential season, meaning that it is a season of repentance. We listen to readings about fasting, weeping, and mourning for our sins, about our need to turn to God for mercy, and then we receive a word of caution to guard against hypocrisy, self-aggrandizement, and self-pity. As the ashes are distributed, we hear the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Or, alternatively, “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”) Why would I be looking forward to Lent with joy?

To be quite honest, until last year, Lent was a season of perfect misery and torture for me. In case I needed any external reminders of how imperfect, broken, fallen, wicked, miserable, and wretched I was, the Church dedicated 40 days to this theme. Throughout the whole year, I did a well enough job of berating myself and denying my worth and value, convinced there was no hope of ever changing. During Lent, the self-shaming and self-hating escalated astronomically. My unhealthy Lenten metamorphosis was partly due to the disordered core beliefs at the center of my destructive personality and partly due to my untreated depression. It was facilitated by some fundamental misunderstandings and misinterpretations of the philosophy, tradition, and teachings of the Catholic Church. All of these factors intertwined with one another, shaping my view of myself, my life, the world, my faith, and God into some sort of creepy, hall-of-mirrors distortion.

Until last year, Lent was my God-imposed diet. As I was growing up, my family made the same Lenten sacrifices every year. No eating between meals, no chocolate, and no meat on Fridays. The reason that it followed so closely after Christmas was as much about making up for eating too many peanut butter blossoms and toffee crunch squares as it was about reorienting toward God. The Church only required fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. The Catholic definition of a fast was more lenient than one might expect, and allowed for two small meals and one larger meal during the course of the day. The idea was not to restrict food in an unhealthy way, but to introduce a little inconvenience into life for a short time so as to remember that one does not live on bread alone.* Abstinence from meat was called for on Ash Wednesday and each Friday of the season. These “minimal” obligations were too lax for my parents, though, who thought the Church was going soft. To demonstrate real faith required daily fasting. By the time we ate dinner at 7:30 or 8 o’clock at night, I would be starving, especially once I was in high school and was playing varsity tennis in the afternoons. Those nights were when I engaged in some of my earliest binges. Yet, the rules were absolute. When I moved out on my own, I became even more rigid and strict with myself, believing that this proved my worthiness and faithfulness. With each passing year, the anxiety, desperation, and shame that I felt as I fell short of my goals again and again deepened. As I intensified my self-deprivation, my mental health tanked. The last two or three years before my eating disorder was diagnosed and treated were the worst. By Easter, invariably, I was binging out of control and praying for death to bring an end to my suffering.

SONY DSC
Cathédrale de Chartres – Labyrinthe,” © H. Silenus, June 2009. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

There was no single “Aha!” moment when it suddenly dawned on me that Lent was a spiritual gift. As I plugged away at my practice of cognitive and dialectical behavioral therapy skills, my self-view began to slowly, ever so slightly, shift. Inch by hesitant, halting inch, my core beliefs started to change. My relationship with God radically altered. The instant that I finally understood, deep in my heart, that I could be loved and forgiven by God in my flawed and imperfect state, before I fixed anything about myself, was a defining moment in the course of my eating disorder recovery. I became curious about the real traditions and teachings of the faith in which I was raised. I started to read voraciously. C. S. Lewis, Rev. Robert Barron, and Mother Teresa. I started asking questions of actual Biblical scholars. It turned out that just about everything I thought I knew was wrong. A humbling universe of love, mystery, wonder, forgiveness, mercy, and beauty opened before me. It was a place in which it was safe to be uncertain. In fact, uncertainty was a requirement. It was a place where imperfection was the expectation. I wanted more.

What I am learning about Lent is that it is a time for centering. It is, indeed, a time for penitence, but not in my old way of understanding. It is a summons to remember our flaws and to realize that we are not able to overcome them on our own. We are asked to turn our shortcomings over to our merciful God, trusting that he forgives us completely and is always helping us to do better. It is a reminder that we are not supposed to be perfect or self-sufficient EVER. The focus of Lent is prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, but the definitions of these concepts are not necessarily what you find when you flip through a copy Merriam-Webster’s. The Lenten “fast” is an invitation to let go of those worldly habits or material goods that distract a person from a life devoted to God. A life devoted to God is a life devoted to LOVE, because LOVE is what God IS. Thus, we are reminded to LOVE, not only God, but each other and… wait for it… ourselves. For six short weeks, we are asked to let go of something that diminishes our capacity to known God and to love, or something that distracts us from praying and from loving. This Lent, rather than altering my eating (fasting is not required or recommended for people with medical needs, and my ED recovery is the priority), I am giving up television. Call it an experiment. I am hoping that I will free up some time for those practices that enliven and enrich my soul, like writing, reading, and just sitting quietly in contemplation. Oh, contemplation. The stillness and silence. It’s hard for me to slow down, and for 40 days, I will be receiving focused reminders about the importance of pausing for quiet reflection. Finally, almsgiving. There is no connection quite like the one forged through a true act of loving service. Pope Francis declared 2016 the Jubilee Year of Mercy. In this year of mercy, I want to open my heart to others and stretch myself to be vulnerable and generous, while exploring boundary-setting, which is an ongoing challenge for me.

So, there’s the plan. Set my heart on God, my center. Search him out wherever I can. Examine the parts of my life that lead me away from him. Work on acknowledging that yes, I am imperfect, just like everyone else. Practice receiving God’s perfect love and accepting his tender mercy… meaning I must forgive myself, too. Be open to offering love freely, however, wherever, and whenever I am called.

Small Easter Lily
Small Easter Lily,” © Carol Von Canon, Aug 2009. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

A brief note…

* Even though I am medically exempted from fasting, I still struggle to come to terms with the rationalizations and justifications used to endorse this spiritual practice. If you are reading this and are interested in why the church promotes fasting, you can learn more about it here. Fasting is NOT recommended for anyone with a medical condition that would be impacted by keeping a fast, which includes anyone who struggles with disordered eating.