“The One that rules over men in justice / Is like the morning light at sunrise / on a cloudless morning, / making the greensward sparkle after rain.”
~ cf. 2 Sm 23:3-4
“Every morning we arise afresh in Christ our light. Ancient Christian writers warn against ‘morning demons’: yesterday’s worries and grievances returning to poison the new day.”
~ October 31, 2016: Prayer for Morning,Magnificat
I know morning demons well! I confront them in the mirror every day at 5:30am as I wash my face, blow out my hair, and apply my makeup. It always frustrates me that during those 20-30 minutes, I am invariably flooded with preoccupations about all the worrisome and troubling thoughts that are crying for my attention. They rush upon me all at once. It seems that one anxiety-provoking notion recruits another and another in an escalating spiral. In like fashion, one bitter and resentful animosity about some conflict at work, some perceived injustice, an invalidating experience, or some other occasion for ire stirs up memories of all manner of past injuries and offenses. My emotions run away with me, and I am left in a conflicted and tense state, vexed by my inability to self-regulate and by my failure to think dialectically, objectively, and compassionately.
Once a month, I receive a small devotional booklet in the mail called Magnificat. All month long, I tote the little collection of passages and reflections around with me, just in case I manage to create the time and silence necessary for a brief meditation. On this last day of the month, the pages are now very tattered. Opening them to read the words of this morning and realizing that the struggle against these “morning demons” is (and always has been, and always will be) a part of the universal human condition reminds me why making space for quiet contemplation is worth the effort. I am not uniquely broken, and I am not alone.
Wishing you all a beautiful, blessed week and month ahead.
According to science, true perpetual motion is not possible. Those physicists at MIT never met me…
When I was in college, I was in awe of my friends who could sit in near cataplexy for hours upon hours, deep in focused concentration, with towers of books, sheaves of paper, assortments of pencils, pens, and colorful highlighters, and discarded coffee cups piled about them. There were a multitude of cozy, quiet, beautiful little nooks and crannies across our centuries-old campus where a person could nestle away for days of endless study. Yet, within an hour or so of burrowing down into the catacombs of the library stacks or snuggling up beside the massive fireplace in the periodicals room, a stirring would begin to creep through my body. It declared to me, “You’re a failure, you can’t hack it, you’re not as good as the rest, and there is clearly and obviously something abnormal about you, because you can’t sit still for two bloody hours! For crying out loud! GET BACK TO WORK!”
As the clock on the wall continued its tortuous march, the thoughts in my head continued their annoying chatter, filling my mind with fantasies of restroom breaks, the weather, chocolate covered pretzels from the lobby shop in the student center, friends from home, shopping, movies that I loved, movies that I wanted to see, the parties that I wasn’t attending and the life that I wasn’t living while I was slaving over my textbooks day after day, all of my shortcomings and failures, the birds outside the window, my next vacation, anxieties about the future, regrets about the past, curiosities about what every person I knew was doing at that very moment, coupled with assumptions that they were all thriving, self-criticism of my sloppy appearance in my standard study-garb of t-shirt and sweatpants… This cyclic, often distorted stream of consciousness was accompanied by a twitchy, restless energy. There was a kinetic force that just wanted to be released. “Make it go away!” was the subconscious message I sent myself, though my executive center screamed, “Everyone else is working hard! What is wrong with you? Why can’t you sit still?!” (Self-compassion was never one of my strengths.)
If you knew Alice or Margie, you could ask them what it was like to live with me during final exam week. When there was no other outlet for that nervous, impatient, distressing dynamism that flooded my body and irritated my brain, I took up the habit of pacing the countertop of our kitchen peninsula. Sometimes, I stood on tables while I recited biochemical reactions from memory or they quizzed me from my flashcards of Latin declensions. Food offered a release, a distraction, an escape, and a comfort. Everyone needed to eat. I awaited mealtimes with apprehensive eagerness, because they provided a legitimized reason to leave my desk for an hour or so. Self-soothing and escaping difficult emotions by eating when I was not hungry or over-eating were maladaptive coping skills that I already carried with me from my earliest childhood.
A few weeks ago, I was tucked into a corner of my therapist’s couch, recounting a more recent experience of that same intense urgency, which arose during a stressful and busy time at work. When my therapist asked me to describe what I meant, I was ready with a catalog of adjectives. Skittery, jittery, tense, and intense. Fluttery, high-strung, and hyperactive. Agitated, frenzied, and disquieted. Discombobulated. She asked me if this state was always necessarily negative, and her question left me confused. Clearly, I was not using my words effectually. Of course it was negative! When I was caught up in this crazy spiral, I felt like my heart might explode, like electricity was running through my body, like I was literally a live-wire. It was confusing, disorienting, uncomfortable, and distressing, and the result was that I became inefficient and ineffective. All I could think about was making it stop and turning it off. Without binging, there was no physical release. I was left to tolerate the intolerable with coping skills like deep breathing, which felt like whispering into a tornado.
My therapist pressed a bit further, challenging my negative associations. Where did I learn that feeling hyperactive, confused, disoriented, and electric were bad? Could those same adjectives also describe excitement? What about exuberance, joy, enthusiasm, andpositive energy? Then, she suggested something else that I wasn’t ready to hear. What if I was born with a more restless temperament? What if I simply wasn’t created to sit still for eight or ten hours at a stretch? After decades of comparing myself to others, could I accept myself as I was? What if the fact that I was not the sort to sit still and quiet for very long didn’t mean that I was broken, or a failure, or dysfunctional, or bad, or deficient, or weak-willed?
Oh, to know peace and rest in my body and my mind! To simply stop moving and thinking! How I yearn for such stasis! To be able to pass an afternoon with reading, meditation, writing, drawing, or painting seems like it would be bliss, but within fifteen minutes (sometimes more, sometimes less) of sitting down, I am up again. Maybe my rejection of my restlessness and my easy distractibility is what amplifies the intolerability of the urge to move. I attempt to fix the “problem” by eliminating every possible distraction before I try to find my calm, but the chores never end, and the to-do list only grows longer.
We spoke about ways that I might find more of a forgiving cadence in my day by building in more frequent, shorter breaks, interspersed with shorter periods of work. Perhaps the combination of quietness and movement is what I need, finding a rhythmic flow between work and restorative reflection. My current patterns will be hard to break, but I am hopeful, because I see the potential for more peace and less burnout. With repeated effort, this could be another step toward relaxing my rigid standards and reducing my self-criticism. Perhaps one of the reasons I enjoy yoga so much is the unity of movement and stillness. Now, if I could only bring my practice off of the mat and into my life.
In April, a rather unremarkable event happened that stayed with me. It was a small gesture, a tiny overture extended by a total stranger, but it resulted in a lasting gratitude. The task of the fifth week of the Kindness Challenge was to cultivate appreciation for kindnesses received. Though I renewed my commitment to journaling about my gratitudes at the end of each day, I thought that a fitting blog post in keeping with this theme would be to reflect upon a little kindness that made a great impact in my heart.
It was a Thursday afternoon, and I was caught between work and home. All day long, it seemed that one mishap collided with another, and I battled back against a tidal wave of emotions as they crested and crashed over me. Each little hang-up and snafu was rather unremarkable alone, but as I recollected old work traumas, the bullet train of my distress, anxiety, foreboding, blame, frustration, exasperation, and desperation shot out of its station. It didn’t break any land speed records. I managed to tap into a few of my basic skills – enough to keep the velocity of my overreaction in check, but the strain that I experienced was disproportionate to the reality of the situation. Exacerbating the acuity of my suffering, I was attempting to braid together a million loose ribbons of unfinished tasks into some sort of neat bow, while racing to complete a list of to-do’s, and rushing to lock up my office for a week’s attendance at a conference out of state. What was supposed to be a simple and straightforward day seemed to be turning out catastrophically wrong. At least, that was what I told myself. I was feeling worn, thin, and defeated, and my impatience with myself for being unable to better cope only compounded my exhaustion and vexation.
It took every effort that I could summon to pull together all those stray ends by 3pm so that I could make it to my 3:30pm hair appointment on time. Because… priorities. Of course. No self-respecting researcher wants to deliver a presentation at her industry’s huge, annual, international, conference with a shaggy, 8-week old haircut. Nothing was packed yet, and I could feel my body and mind reverberating with apprehensive, negative energy. Discouraged. Despairing. Scared. Overwhelmed. Helpless. Hopeless. Hostile. Agitated. Self-hating. World-hating. Trapped. Victimized. I pulled into a parking lot down the street from my stylist’s studio. Outside the car, the skies were a thick gray, and there was a pressing threat of rain. The forecast predicted precipitation, and a lot of it, and as I was walking out of my office building not fifteen minutes earlier, a few scattered drops were already falling. Yet, for some unclear reason, I decided that I would take a chance without my umbrella.
It looked like I might be fortunate. As I left the salon, the sky was still holding back. My anxiety-fueled perfectionism sank its sharp teeth into my chest, though. I have time for one stop, I told myself, darting around the corner and across the square before ducking into another shop. I NEED a new tube of eyelash serum before my trip! (The more frayed I am, the more ridiculous the demands and expectations I tend impose upon myself.) It was while I was frenetically flipping through the tubes of mascara that the clouds cracked open and the deluge began. I managed to dash madly as far as the corner across from the lot where my car sat, patiently waiting, immune to the downpour. I took shelter under the awning of a bank, but by then the rain was hammering the earth in driving sheets. I decided I wasn’t in that much of a hurry, and I resigned myself to wait, hoping it would lighten as quickly as it began.
There I was, conspicuously standing alone at the corner of the bank, while a blinding torrent of rain cascaded downward. A few cars drove slowly past, windshield wipers flicking wildly, drivers hunched over steering wheels in unbroken concentration, attempting to peer around the raindrops. Across from me, a small SUV was idling in the otherwise deserted lot, headlights flickering and wipers dancing. A man in a windbreaker with a giant golf umbrella suddenly popped out from the driver’s compartment and dashed across the road toward me. “Would you like an escort to your car?” he asked.
In the top left drawer of my desk, I store a collection of stamps, a few eclectic stickers, and a random assortment of blank greeting cards. Across the front of one of those cards, in haphazard lettering, is a short poem by Holly Gerth that reads,
I wish I had a big yellow umbrella
that would keep away all the rain in your life.
I would hold it over your head,
and the drops would splash, splash
and you would never even feel it.
But I don’t have a big yellow umbrella—
so I’ll walk through the rain with you.
I couldn’t believe it was really happening. This generous person who I didn’t even know was walking through the rain with me. His umbrella wasn’t yellow, but it was big. I was simultaneously grateful, relieved, and ashamed. In the face of this genuine act of kindness, I was ashamed and repentant for my own hardness of heart, and I was regretful and remorseful for being so consumed with my petty worries, preoccupations, and anxieties. I was jolted out of my narrow scope of vision, propelled beyond the tiny, inner world where I was trapped as a result of my prolonged over-focus on myself. Though there was a sting that accompanied the recognition of my weakness and warpedness, I was thankful for the awareness, because it expanded my perception and opened my heart. It also threw my problems into sharper relief, and I felt the reassurance of knowing, “This, too, shall pass.”
Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing away;
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
He who has God lacks nothing.
God alone suffices.
~ St. Teresa of Avila
Gathered together under the giant golf umbrella, the two of us hurried across the slogged street, leaning into each other and awkwardly dodging puddles. In less than a minute, he delivered me to my car door, and as I continued to babble my profuse, stumbling words of thanks, he was off again down the sidewalk and back about whatever business brought him out on that particular, wet afternoon. As I pulled away from the curb, I wondered if it was God’s plan that I should lack the insight to bring my own umbrella with me on that day. Was I meant to be trapped in that downpour, so that such a chance encounter might happen? I wondered what impact this simple interaction would effect on the universe. How far would the ripples spread? My bristling, stony heart was slightly (though not entirely) soothed by the thoughtfulness, kindness, and goodness offered to me. Did it allow my rescuer to feel good, positive, joyful, hopeful, generous, and loving to be able to lend a hand to a person in need? Maybe we both departed from that encounter a bit more wholehearted than when we arrived, and ready spread that wholeheartedness to others.
As I reflect on that day now, months later, I can’t help but wonder… maybe it is still creating ripples.
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.
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.
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!”
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. ❤
Monday, the Fourth of July, was Independence Day in the United States. As I reflected on that occasion, I remembered where I was and what I was doing on the very same date last year. As I briefly mentioned in my previous post, July 4th, 2015 concluded with me staring down the barrel of a fully-loaded ice-cream-sundae buffet. I nearly succumbed to the pure panic that the accursed dessert provoked in me. Nearly.
Here’s the scoop… Oh, goodness, I crack myself up! But though I jest, there is nothing amusing about this next bit…
At the end of my road, there is a small ice cream shop, which is part of a local chain. Their homemade ice cream is touted as some of the best in the world, and it even wins national awards. Unfortunately, this shop is also a place where I engaged in some of my worst self-harming binge behaviors. At the climax of my eating disorder, I was dropping in two or three times each week for a double-scoop sundae with all the fixings and an armful of chocolate bars, to-go. From all appearances, it was impossible to tell that I already consumed the equivalent of a Thanksgiving meal earlier in the afternoon, and I would continue to eat for another several hours once I returned home. My binges only ended when I was laying on the living room carpet, clutching my abdomen in pain, tears streaking my cheeks, unable to even squeeze a sip of water into my distended belly, afraid I would die in the middle of the night from a gastric rupture.
When I returned from partial hospitalization treatment at Walden, I never wanted to relive that agony again. I was almost militant in my avoidance of my most provoking triggers, among them being the ice cream shop at the corner of the street. At first, the mere sight of the building induced such anxiety that I needed to pull out every last one of my coping skills each time I drove past. Slowly, over time, I built new memories and healthy associations with my environment. My diseased, habitually patterned thoughts and activities were overwritten by my new life. The ice cream shop faded into the background.
After my Independence Day sundae buffet confrontation last summer, my straight-talking and amazing nutritionist, Kelly, challenged me to explore my authentic relationship with ice cream. “Do you even like ice cream?” she asked. No! I wanted to exclaim. I hate ice cream! It upsets my stomach! It is repugnant to me! Blech! My reaction was one of self-defense. At Kelly’s insistence, I revisited my favorite ice cream establishment, using my new knowledge of mindful eating to fully immerse myself in the experience and enjoyment of the cold, soft, smooth, melty, sweet, sticky, chocolatey-chippy goodness. Yet, I remained tense. It felt too familiar. Too close to old behaviors. At least, that was what I told myself, in my self-defensive, self-protective way. “What would happen if you actually liked the ice cream?” Kelly prodded. Danger! Danger! Danger! I would want it ALL the time! I would eat it ALL the time! I would get fat! It would RUIN my life!
In the fall, my friend, Amelia, and I began meeting for dinner at a different, local, independent restaurant every couple of weeks. These outings were a fun, social events for us both, and they were also my project from Kelly. Every two or three weeks there was a new chef, a new menu, a new challenge, but the same, supportive Amelia and wonderful conversation. On our very first night out, we came to the understanding that we would always order dessert. As I sampled my way across an assortment of artisanal treats, I discovered something surprising about my tastes. The first new revelation was that I actually had tastes. Real tastes. Rather than obeying the impulsive, anxious, preoccupying urges to eat certain foods, I discovered foods with a taste, texture, and aroma that delighted all of my senses. I came to realize that I actually didn’t like many of the foods that were once the object of my obsessions and the fuel of my binges. Soon, I happened upon a new favorite. Hot pastry, with just the right consistency, preferably a slice of cake or brownie, but sometimes a bubbling fruit tart, with one scoop of ice cream (just one please), and maybe a dab of chocolate sauce. There’s a moment when the ice cream juuuuust begins to melt and all the flavors swirl together in a way that is both cool and warm at the same time. Mmmmmm…
…… we interrupt this blog for the author to make a quick jaunt down the road for a brownie and a scoop of ice cream with hot fudge…… Did I mention that they make their own whipped cream at the little shop on the corner?!
Ok, I’m back.
Eleven months after I almost hit the pavement on the Fourth of July 2015, I confidently walked the short, ten-minute stroll to that ice cream shop at the corner of my street. I perched on a bench, with my little, plastic dish and spoon in my hands, watching the mint-chocolate-chip dribble down in tiny rivulets and swirl around the thick fudge. Dipping my spoon, I raised that first taste to my mouth… So yummy! That was all. Just, “So yummy.” This thought was not followed by a crisis of conscious. There was no panicked catastrophizing, no racing heart, and no desperate eyes darting around for the exit. I sat on the little outdoor patio, feeling the hot summer sun on my very pale legs, listening to the gentle wooshing of cars rolling by, letting the chocolate chips and nibbles of brownie slide over my teeth and my tongue, and soaking in every bite, every drop of those delicious, mingling flavors.
This Fourth of July, I celebrated freedom in a different way. I celebrated my freedom from fear over food. Or, at least, this one food. Happy Independence Day!
Shifting from someone concerned about making health-conscious food choices to a person with profoundly limiting orthorexia was subtle. My decompensation slowly progressed over several years, though my caloric restriction and weight loss were fairly dramatic and abrupt. When I first entered treatment for my binge eating disorder, I couldn’t even acknowledge my underlying anorexic and orthorexic tendencies. I freely admitted to my use of disordered overeating and binge behaviors. This history of using food to numb and avoid strong emotions, discomfort, or pain was a maladaptive coping mechanism that traced back into my childhood. However, I refused to allow that my actual eating disorder began as a predominantly restrictive problem. My adamant denial was so powerful that I actually convinced myself that my nutrition was balanced and adequate when I wasn’t actively binging. (FALSE!) Though I was deeply ashamed of the label “binge eater,” it was easier to identify with that diagnosis than to face the truth that my restriction, over-exercise, and weight-loss obsession was dangerous, unhealthy, and unsustainable. The fear of relinquishing control over my food choices and the threat of the weight gain that might result were unbearable.
Withholding information and bending facts in an effort to create reality as I desired it to exist and my attempts to manipulate the outcome of my treatment only resulted in setbacks, frustration, and despair. As I experienced failure after failure, I begrudgingly revealed the full depth of my disorder. I reluctantly pulled at the threads of my story, picking apart one strand at a time. Finally, eight months after being diagnosed with BED and a month after my discharge from partial hospitalization, my nutritionist was able to weave the complete tapestry together. She was the first to verbalize what I intrinsically knew to be true about my eating. My binging did not exist in isolation. I was also a restrictive eater with underlying orthorexia.
My task is now to unwind the tight tangle of fear, limitation, avoidance, and control. Undoing the knot takes place even more gradually and inconspicuously than the act of snarling it up. Perhaps the subtlety of the process is itself a marker of my improvement. The fact that sampling a “new” food does not always involve a climactic battle against apprehension and anxiety is a victory. This is a pretty stark contrast to last Fourth of July, when staring down a table of make-your-own ice cream sundae fixings filled me with so much panic that I nearly passed out. More recently, I am observing that when I spot a different or novel food, I may just eat it. Whether I am motivated by hunger and a lack of other choices, or by curiosity, or both, the result is the same.
At a Memorial Day cookout with friends back home, both need and intrigue were factors when, rather unceremoniously, I reached for a cheeseburger. Ok, ok. It wasn’t really a cheeseburger. A friend was grilling sliders, those smaller medallions of ground beef, which he topped off with a slice of cheddar folded into quarters. There was no flourish, and hardly anyone noticed when I wandered into the kitchen, observed that these miniature beef patties were my only protein option of the evening, and placed one on my plate (without a bun or condiments). Even I barely registered that this was an unprecedented and unusual action for me. It was only my friend’s half-startled, somewhat awkward, but abundantly considerate and compassionate comment, “There’s more food in the fridge if you need anything else,” which triggered my introspection. Why would I need anything else? I wondered. Why is he concerned? It took a few minutes before it dawned on me… It wasn’t long ago that I DID need my own special meal EVERY time we ate together.
There are still many occasions when I opt for a peanut butter sandwich tucked into my purse instead of lunch at a restaurant when I’m on the go, but I don’t view this as a symptom of my orthorexia. Though my goal is to loosen my restriction, I am still allowed to be health-conscious (and budget-conscious) in my choices. The reality is that I am much more comfortable eating a wider variety of foods when the occasion arises, and my trepidation and self-consciousness about eating in front of others is also improving. Last June, I left the church picnic after 15 minutes, because I couldn’t bring myself to eat a hamburger, and because I was so insecure about not knowing anyone with whom to socialize or talk. A few weeks ago, I attended the same annual picnic, and passed a delightful afternoon, chatting and eating until the cleanup crew began to pack their gear away. I won’t be making hamburgers and cheeseburgers a staple of my regular diet, but I I continue to add experience after experience that reinforces this truth – there is more to food than what I stare at on my plate. This is what nourishes and sustains me – the people I love, in the places close to my heart.
Here it is, the final day of the challenge! Thank you for reading and for allowing me to share some of my favorite quotations with you. To conclude the challenge, here is a sampling for you to take with you into your day.
“One cannot judge the beauty of a path merely by looking at its entrance.”
~ Paulo Coelho
“The same everlasting Father who cares for you today will care for you tomorrow and every day. Either he will shield you from suffering or give you unfailing strength to bear it. Be at peace then and put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginings.”
~ St. Francis de Sales
“Go out into the world today and love the people you meet. Let your presence light new light in the hearts of people.”
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?”
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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)