Over the course of the past day, I found myself pitched about on the brutal seas of a turbulent shame storm. When the unfortunately familiar physical sensations of burning in my face, muscle tension in my jaw, teeth clenching, and wincing began to crest, I was able to summon little desire to face whatever real or imagined iniquity lay at the eye of this hurricane. Who would want to turn into that torrent of painful emotions and cruel self-criticisms? Armed with a toolbox of distraction techniques and distress-tolerance skills, I weathered the intermittent surges of mental and emotional anguish with their characteristic accompanying bodily signs. I took a hot shower, caught up on some reading, and listened to an audiobook, all the while pushing back the recurring sense of mortification that told me I had done something terribly, abysmally, unforgivably atrocious.
A new acquaintance recently recommended a small book to me entitled God’s Tender Mercy: Reflections on Forgiveness by Sr. Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun. This morning, I woke feeling restored after my first decent night of sleep in recent memory, but I recognized a persisting vulnerability – the raw sting that hinted at shame lurking nearby. I reached for the little book on my bedside dresser. It was only seventy-seven 3×5 inch pages long in its entirety, and I was up to chapter two, “Forgive Us Our Sins: Forgive Yourself.” With one hand stroking my ginger cat, I began to read.
“And sometimes keeping the rules, I came to understand, can be more sinful than breaking them,” the wise sister wrote. I placed the book on my lap and contemplated my shame. It probably rose from my impression that I violated some inviolable social mores. It likely originated in the idea that I committed some act of “rule-breaking,” though I wasn’t exactly sure which of a million, little, conflicting and mutually exclusive rules I broke. My tendency toward rigid, black-and-white thinking and my old striving to be perfect provided a ready substrate for self-imposed agony. It was my choice to remain stuck in that miserable place, I realized. “If we admitted our arrogance, faced our dishonesties, named our weaknesses – at least to ourselves – we would be consumed with kindness,” I read on. What exactly was I refusing to face? I returned to the events of the previous afternoon and revisited precisely what occurred before this particular storm started churning. There, I found myself afraid to look foolish in front of others, holding myself to such an impossible standard of decorum that the specific expectations of behavior defied definition. I saw that I was terrified of doing or saying something “wrong,” and I was telling myself that a few, minor faux pas were unforgiveable. Imagining rejection and judgment, my cheeks flushed and I reflexively scrunched my face, bowing my head and squeezing my eyes tightly closed.
“The fact is that we are all made of the same thing: clay, the dust of the earth, the frail, fragile, shapeless thing from which we come and to which we will all return someday. We are all capable of the same things. Our only hope is that when we are all sitting somewhere bereft, exposed, outcast, humiliated and rejected by the rest of society, someone, somewhere will ‘reach out a hand and lift us up.’”
~ Sr. Joan Chittister, God’s Tender Mercy
What makes me so special that I think I should never make a mistake? I asked myself. It wasn’t a new question, but I required some gentle reminding. Who am I that when I make a mistake, I am excepted from compassion and understanding? It suddenly occurred to me that accepting compassion required a strong knowledge of self. It demanded true humility. To accept compassion, whether from myself or anyone else, would mean acknowledging my need for that compassion. Why would I need compassion unless I was deeply flawed? Facing those flaws, how could I deny that I deserved the gentle grace of forgiveness? After all, if I could not embrace my inner demons, then how could I ever hope to make enough peace with them that I might embrace others? How could I move beyond the past I could not change into the future I was called to live?
“Arrogance commits us to a community of one. There is nothing to be gained there. Don’t confuse weakness with sin. Most of us struggle with something we never quite conquer. It is precisely that struggle that can become the stuff of compassion with others.”
~ Sr. Joan Chittister, God’s Tender Mercy
Shame was trying to keep me isolated in my own ego, ruminating on the blunders of yesterday, and not in a healthy way that might lead to self-improvement, but in a self-castigating way designed only to inflict punishment and pain. Shame was telling me that I was unforgiveable, and beneath it all, shame was presuming that I was better than everyone around me, because I was fixing a standard for myself that was unreasonable for any human being. I peeled back all the layers, and staring up at me was my own, stubborn pride. It drove me to care so much about how others perceived and judged me that it sucked me into an unwinnable struggle to control the uncontrollable and secluded me in my own fear and self-defensiveness. With a great sigh, I accepted that this would not be the last time I would fall victim to the myth of self-reliance. I was refusing to allow for the graciousness of others. In my narrow, condemnatory, wounded little heart, I was denying that others might be more charitable than I was in overlooking my faults and reserving judgment. Could I admit that I was too caught up in my own self-importance, hand it all over to the God whose mercy surpasses His justice, and then simply let it go?
The driving winds of the tempest began to abate. The rain fell more softly. I started writing, and I discovered an odd gratitude. If I never went so far astray, upon what would I reflect? How would I grow?
“The only thing we can offer God of value is to give our love to people as unworthy of it as we are of God’s love.”
“Sensations are not symptoms,” I tell myself as I place one blue-sneakered foot tentatively onto the concrete pavement. The words of my first psychiatrist return to me, though I can’t remember his precise phrasing. “How many times will you tell yourself you can’t do it before you do?”
“Anxiety and fear do not provide solace for our pain but aggravate it, leading us to a kind of breakdown in courage and strength because it appears that our pain has no possible remedy.”
~ St. Francis de Sales
On this blog, though I recount forthrightly my struggles with depression and anxiety and I unabashedly discuss my recovery from binge eating disorder, there remain one or two subjects so steeped in self-judgment and shame that I continue to carefully avoid them. These issues are important parts of my identity, and I process them in-depth with my dietician, my therapist, and in my personal writing. Otherwise, I keep the stories to myself, with the persistent belief that, “There are some things that people just won’t understand.” The way that my mind processes thought through physiologic responses in my body is one of those topics that I eschew. It’s hard to describe the stress-induced symptoms that I can develop. They aren’t manifestations of an overactive imagination or an overwrought psyche, and I don’t suffer from what is commonly characterized (and stigmatized) as “psychosomatic” illness. Over-worked neurons send misdirecting signals into the muscles of my body, which contract irregularly, and – voila! – a knot in my shoulder or in my stomach, a rushed trip to the restroom, or a flare-up of an old tendinitis. Did you ever have a lump in your throat, tightness in your chest, or butterflies in your stomach when you were particularly anxious about something? In some people, that mind-body connection is a little over-developed. Different people may experience this process in a manner of ways, but for me, it is just that easy… and complicated.
My response to stress through these non-specific physical manifestations didn’t emerge out of nowhere. When I was in sixth grade, I was the target of some fairly serious bullying. (Those were the days before cell phones and social media. I can’t even fathom what children go through today.) By the end of the year, I was suffering from such frequent stomachaches and nausea that my pediatrician was convinced I was lactose intolerant. When all the tests returned with normal results, the symptoms eventually resolved. I was always a sensitive child and easily prone to worry. As I transitioned from elementary to middle school, the dysthymic depression that would persist for the next 20 years settled more concretely upon me. I began to experience intermittent knee pains, which continued off and on throughout high school and college. I was diagnosed with patellofemoral syndrome, attributed to soccer and tennis. Before every tennis match, I lined up by the athletic trainer’s office so that he could tape my knees, but my ruminations about the sensation of pain only exacerbated and amplified the subjective experience. After college, I found my stride – literally and figuratively – becoming a short-distance runner and entering races. I completely forgot about my history of patellofemoral syndrome, and then I developed my first significant injury of adulthood. It was the fear more than the pain from the shin splints and possible stress fracture (I couldn’t afford the diagnostic test) that caused my depression and anxiety to spike. My thoughts lingered obsessively over my injury. In my fear and anticipation of pain, I could interpret almost any physical sensation in my legs as “hurt,” and my recovery extended beyond the expected six weeks into the range of six months. Eventually, when my bewildered doctor told me, “Either you are going to run, or you aren’t,” I screwed up my courage and forced one foot in front of the other. My mind reeled, but there wasn’t any inflammation in my extremities. When I forced my way through my dread and apprehension, both the emotions and their physical manifestations slowly melted away into… normalcy.
It wasn’t until nearly five years later, while I was recovering from my gastrointestinal illness and plantar fasciitis, that my therapist and I started addressing the role that my thought process was playing in my over-interpretation of physical stimuli. Anytime I noticed the slightest suggestion of a feeling in the area of my abdomen, I began to focus all of my attention on my stomach. As I over-analyzed every gurgle and squelch, I descended into self-blame, and my head swam with alarming and catastrophic thoughts. “Am I relapsing again? What did I do? I must have done something to cause it! What should I do? What if I really am getting sick again?” While my mood tanked, my stomach twisted into aching knots. At the same time that I was recovering from the terrible trauma of that prolonged GI disease, I was also in physical and emotional agony over a lingering case of plantar fasciitis, which made it difficult to enjoy many of the activities I once loved. The onset of the injury occurred during the peak of the colitis, at a time when I was weakened, malnourished, and desperately depressed. When my therapist and I discussed this history, I began to see how my anxiety and perseverations were understandable. It was so obvious when it was all laid out as if we were discussing the life of some stranger. Of course, I would be hyper-vigilant to any cues that might alert me to impending danger from these two conditions which, together, upended my entire existence! With my therapist’s coaching, I practiced responding to my pain and my fear with acceptance, gentleness, and self-compassion. “There’s that pain again,” I acknowledged. “There’s my brain worrying that something is wrong. But nothing is wrong, and I am ok.” As I gently closed my eyes and relaxed the little muscles of my jaw, I repeated to myself, “Deep breath. Ground myself in the breath. Ground myself in anything other than my stomach or my feet.”
Turning to principles of operant conditioning, I trained myself to act opposite my emotions. Rather than modifying my behavior to “protect myself” from further exacerbating the “pain,” I did exactly what I was afraid to do, within what a wise mind might consider moderate and safe. Instead of staying home from a bike ride, I would set out for a gentle cycle around the block, just to stretch my legs and prove to myself that I was capable of spending 10 or 15 minutes on a bicycle without hurting myself or causing some sort of massive GI upheaval. Instead of sitting on the couch and nursing my poor feet, lamenting my “disability,” I would tell myself softly that walking through the grocery store was not enough to trigger any sort of severe injury from which recovery was impossible, and off I went, frequently deep-breathing the whole way along while squinting my eyes tight and forcefully redirecting my attention again and again to anything other than the focus of my worry.
“The best way out is always through.”
~ Robert Frost
During these days of rewiring my mind-body connection, I developed several mantras: “Just because I feel pain does not mean I am injured. // Sensitivity is not the same as pain. // There is no way that this moderate level of (x,y,z) activity is causing permanent damage. // In the whole long course of my life, this will not last forever! I am ok, and I am going to be ok. // All of this is going to work out. // No matter what happens, God has a plan for my life.” I also expanded the vocabulary that I used to describe my physical sensations. From one word, “pain,” my lexicon multiplied to include pressure, twinge, niggle, rub, ache, sting, tenderness, smarting, soreness, prickle, tingle, pinch, throb, burn, and irritation. Sometimes, there was still no word that fit. “I just feel it. It’s just there,” I would tell myself. Just because I was aware of the presence of my feet, did not mean that there was anything amiss.
“Don’t trouble yourself. God didn’t make us to abandon us.”
So… why am I now reflecting on a desensitization process that I undertook almost two years ago? Well, I still develop physiologic responses to stress, and I still rely on the same tools and skills to redirect the automatic thoughts that alarm my mind with fears that my body isn’t right. With my trip to Paris quickly approaching, I am discovering that there is much more to this jumble than I originally perceived. There are some fearsome monsters still slumbering peacefully in a dark corner of my closet. Until recently, I didn’t even know they were there. Now, they are yawning wide, stretching their claws after their long hibernation, and showing their fangs. They are knocking on the door, and I am timidly letting them into the room.
The truth is, by God’s grace I am blessedly able-bodied, and I always enjoyed a very active lifestyle. I grew up running, jumping, and playing. At parties, I loved to dance! I lived in New York City and Washington, DC and constantly walked everywhere. Until a couple years ago, my job was incredibly active, and I was on my feet for 12 to 16 hours a day. Where did she go, that girl who used to clomp and shuffle and skip and scurry? She never gave her feet much of a thought. “This trip is going to be good for you on many levels,” my therapist predicted during our most recent session. She was referring to the myriad ways I was finding myself hurtled out of my comfort zone. Her underlying assumption seemed to be that I would emerge intact and healthy from my visits with the beasties in the closet. She foresaw us all pleasantly sipping thé and eating gateau at some Parisian sidewalk café in May. I reminded her that there were only four months until my departure – not much time to rehabilitate myself. “And here I was thinking, ‘Wow, we have four whole months! Think of all we can do in that amount of time!’” she replied.
Ironically, it was my mother who offered me the centering words of reassurance that anchored me in acceptance and self-compassion. “If it hurts to walk, just sit down,” she spoke to me over the phone. I was so overwhelmed by how much walking I would have to do after I landed in Paris, that I never stopped to consider I didn’t actually have to do any of it. “There will be so many places to sit! There will be places to sit everywhere! You don’t have to go everywhere and see everything. Just do what you can, and then take a break.” I was a little stunned that these words of balance and wisdom were coming from the same driven woman who instilled my perfectionistic, neurotic restlessness in me. This was the bold, fearless mother whose sense of adventure and curiosity could never be dissuaded until she explored every nook and cranny of every city, street, neighborhood, beach, field, house, museum, shop, or parking lot into which she ever stepped foot. She never saw a “Do Not Enter” sign that applied to her. As I contemplated her message, I remembered that she was also the same one who gently told me, “Let go of your pride,” when I blushed with shame as I maneuvered a motorized scooter through Disney World two years ago. In both instances, she reminded me that it was ok to be flexible, that I was more than I imagined myself to be, and that in the acceptance of reality, there was nothing to fear.
“If we are intended for great ends, we are called to great hazards.”
~ Blessed John Henry Newman
“Do what you can. It’s going to be ok.” Both feet are planted on the sidewalk now. I close the front door behind me, turn the key, and drop the little brass ring into my jacket pocket. Unravelling a set of earbuds, I jam them into my ears, wedging them in extra-securely. I thumb through my music and hit the “shuffle” button on the same playlist that comforted me during those early days of transition after my partial hospitalization discharge. Pat Benatar blasts into my tympanic membranes, reverberating down my auditory canals into my brain, drowning out any other thoughts. Off go my feet – one, two, one, two – and I consciously slow them as I count my inhales and exhales. Clenching my fists and singing softly along with the lyrics, I turn the corner, and I lose sight of the house behind me. “My body can do this! My body wants to do this,” I think. “It is my mind that is weak.” At the end of the next street, I turn back. The loop is about a mile, all-told, and I finish it in about 30 minutes. I am ok. “It’s going to be ok.”
“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
“At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known. So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”
~ 1 Corinthians 13:12-13
In the still, gray quiet of predawn on this January 1st, I turned off the background music which usually entertains me as I eat my breakfast, and I sat in silence. Gradually, my senses began to perceive the subtlety surrounding me. A candle flickered and crackled in a jar on the table, releasing just a hint of evergreen fragrance into the air. Across the living room, the blinds were drawn back from the heavy, glass doors, revealing the shiny, irregular surface of the frozen pond and the clear, mirrored reflection of the dark, leafless trees standing on the far bank. The wan light cast the world in muted, leaden tones, and dark clouds billowed on the horizon, but there was not even the hint of a breeze. The brass wind chimes hung motionless below the porch roof. Sitting there, at the dining room table that I inherited from my grandparents, the same table around which three generations of my family welcomed decades of new years, I leaned over a steaming cup of tea and a piping bowl of oatmeal, and I was filled with gratitude and hope.
This January 1st is my second in this townhouse apartment in Vanillasville. Rather, it is the second January 1st of this life in this apartment. It is my third January 1st, A.W. – After Walden. That is how I mark time now – Before Walden and After Walden. On my first January 1st, A.W., I was still residing in Boston. In another week, I would make that perilous transition back to life in Vanillasville, with my recovery hanging in the balance. I was still shattered into a billion jagged fragments, a fractured and broken person, but for the first time in my life, they were healthy fragments, and I was in the process of piecing them together. If I could tell that person one thing, it would be this, “Even though the future is terrifying, and you can’t see the way forward, and even though the risks are overwhelming, you are going to get through this, and it is going to be ok.” Maybe that person I was on January 1st, 2015 would tell the me of now the same thing. Though I am still in the process of becoming, I am not where I was on that day two years ago. Neither am I where I was on January 1st, 2016. It is sobering to recognize the truth of this reality.
The year of 2014 was filled with death. I was gravely ill with a serious gastrointestinal illness that defied every treatment my doctors threw at it. I was mentally ill with depression, and I sank deeper and deeper into despair. When my medical symptoms made it difficult to tolerate food, the disordered eating that percolated in the background of my life for many years suddenly seized control of my entire being as a full-blown eating disorder. I survived on the last feeble tatters of what were always slightly distorted, cynical, and disillusioned faith and hope. Yet, at the end of 2014, my life changed. In May, I underwent a new and still somewhat investigational intervention for my GI disease, which worked where all the other treatments failed. Finally, in November, I entered Walden to address my mental illness and my eating disorder. Through the intensive, multidisciplinary care I received, I finally began to rewire the twisted and misfiring circuitry in my brain. The big breakthrough came one day, in the midst of a group session, when the full impact of the following realization finally broke my steely, wounded heart: God LOVES me. God loves all of us, because He IS Love. God knows everything about me. He knows all of my sins, all of my failures, all of my faults, and all of my dysfunction. He knows how messed up I am, and he still loves me, with all of that stuff going on. Even though he wants better for me, he forgives me, and he loves me just as I am. I don’t have to change. I don’t even have to be sorry. He still loves me. AND, if God loves and forgives me just as I am, who am I to deny myself that same love and forgiveness? Do I know better than God?
That moment was not a cure-all for my mental illness, but it was a major turning point in my recovery. In the past two years, my life grew in ways I never imagined possible.
Now, here I am, on the threshold of 2017. I don’t know what the future holds, and I wonder at God’s plan for my life. What I don’t doubt is that there IS a plan. God saved me for a reason. As Bl. John Henry Newman wrote, “God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission – I never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next…I am a link in a chain, a bond of connexion between persons…I shall do good, I shall do His work; I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it, if I do but keep His commandments and serve Him in my calling. Therefore I will trust him.” This year, I would like to increase in practicing an INTENTIONAL way of life. I would like to be MINDFUL and purposeful in what I think, say, and do. Thus, I would like to continue to grow in FAITH, seeking to do God’s will rather than my own and TRUSTING that all will be well, knowing that even when I struggle, face setbacks, or suffer, I am never alone, and an even greater good is being brought about by our Creator, who ultimately wants nothing for us but what is best.
“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
In this vein, my additional intentions for the year are…
to grow in true HUMILITY. A humble person knows her strengths and weaknesses, and is honest about both. May I not be afraid to say “yes,” to take risks, and to move beyond my comfort zone, bolstered by a realistic understanding of my gifts and my shortcomings. May I have the courage to ask for help when I need it, and the strength to offer help when I can give it. May I not be afraid to admit my faults with integrity, accepting myself as I am, with a willingness to confront the often-challenging process of making personal changes. May I recognize and own my mistakes with a healthy sense of guilt but without shame, seeking forgiveness and making amends when necessary.
to grow in COMPASSION for myself when I fail to live up to these lofty ideals, understanding that nobody is perfect, and this process is the work of a lifetime. May I also grow in compassion for others, recognizing that we all struggle, though our struggles may take different forms. May I seek to look past those differences that I am so quick to use to separate myself from people out of fear. Instead, may I foster the courage and willingness to acknowledge our shared human connection and begin to see others not as separate or opposed to me, but as an extension of myself. May I remember that we are all made by the same Creator, we are all broken, and God’s love is given freely to redeem us all.
to GIVE THANKS in all circumstances. Even if it seems the whole world is falling apart around me or my life is unraveling at the seams, there are always blessings to be found. Sometimes, they are hidden and obscure, and often, they may seem to be barely any consolation, but every situation is an opportunity for grace and for growth.
“In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.”
~ 1 Thessalonians 5:18
In our outcome-oriented, results-focused society, we are frequently reminded that effective goals are SMART – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely. (Bonus points for you if you can craft your goal into an acronym.) My areas of focus for 2017 are more elusive, metaphysical, and infinite. Therefore, I am making them intentions rather than resolutions. I am not expecting to achieve success in 2017. I’m not attempting to accomplish anything specific. Rather, I would like to continue growing through this year and beyond. At the same time, I know that concrete practices are the way to foster this progression. I think it is healthy for me to begin with a few explicit objectives. As with all balanced habits, they will invariably shift with the changing demands of my life over these coming weeks and months, but they are a start.
Cultivate stillness and silence daily. Practice sitting still, breathing deeply, and accessing my five senses for 10 minutes after coming home at the end of the day.
Reduce the amount of time I spend mindlessly watching television or thumbing through my mobile phone. Replace this time with mindful activities, such as reading, writing, art, or meditation.
Give my undivided attention to whoever is with me. Listen attentively rather than planning my next response. Show my face, without turning away or engaging in distractions, such as checking my phone (or turning back to my computer screen when I am at work – a tendency of mine that I would like to work on).
Cultivate balance in mind, body, and spirit, by making time every week for activities that engage each level of my being. Read a few pages of a book at least once or twice a week. Exercise in a moderate, healthy way (I have a specific exercise plan worked out with my therapist and dietician). I may not make time for every activity every day, but I can maintain a flexible and consistent rhythm through the week.
At the conclusion of every evening, before falling asleep, spend 5 or 10 minutes reflecting on the challenges, the successes, the personal encounters, and even the mundane events of the day. Use these nightly examens to assess who I am in relation to who I aim to be and reorient myself for the morning to come.
Finally, I am reminding myself once more that the outcomes that I care about the most are not those that can be assessed by any measuring stick or scale. May we all grow in compassion for ourselves and others in 2017, and may there be an increase in peace in our world through our little, daily acts.
“Let us accustom ourselves to noting that the actions that seem most ordinary are secretly directed by the order of God and serve his designs without our noticing it, in such a way that nothing comes to pass by mere coincidence.”
“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.
Four months later, I am finally writing my reflection on the seventh and final week of the Kindness Challenge. I am calling it my “kind of” conclusion, because my aim is to continue the daily challenge of being as kind, loving, and forgiving as I possibly can be… and accepting that I will encounter times when I both succeed and fall short.
When I began the challenge, I was frayed, distracted, and feeling dashed on the rocks of the stormy sea of life. I was longing for shelter from the pounding waves, and the challenge provided structure, short-term goals, and a wholehearted purpose at a time when wholeheartedness seemed distant and impossible. Participating in the challenge reminded me that in order to share love with others, I first needed to treat myself with gentleness and self-compassion. How could I expect myself to meet others “wherever they were,” giving them the benefit of the doubt, and acting kindly regardless of how they might treat me or respond, if I could not approach myself in the same manner, understanding myself as an imperfect person trying my best?
During the challenge, I was invited deeper into mindfulness and into the connections between all of us here in this living, breathing world. I was frequently confronted with the greatest commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength,” and, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:30 and 31)
It seems that breaking out of my inward focus and my self-protective shell and loving God in the guise of my neighbor, brazenly and fearlessly, with my whole heart, will always be one of the most difficult things I do. Where love is, then pain, disappointment, and rejection inevitably follow. Not always, but sometimes. This loving is a risky business. Yet, I know that it is possible, and through this challenge, I am encouraged to continue working on it each day.
Many thanks to Niki for hosting the Kindness Challenge. For those of you who aren’t familiar with her blog, I highly encourage you to go check it out, here. She is constantly updating with new content, and it is never too late to participate in the challenge!
Every Thursday evening, whenever I’m in town and not traveling, I attend a therapy group for people who suffer from eating disorders and distorted body image. Though I am surrounded by the support and love of innumerable family, friends, colleagues, and caring professionals, something unnerving and soul-wrenching happens when I am among others who know firsthand what it is like to live with this illness. When they speak, it is as if their words are my own. To know that I am not alone because my family and friends are always with me is comforting. But, to know that I am not alone because there are other people who understand… that is heart-breaking, mind-bending, and ultimately, healing. I am not so deranged that another human being can’t comprehend the parts of me that are most disturbed and irrational.
At the present moment, there are eight of us. Each of us is in a different place along our journeys. Some are actively working on their recovery. Some are still in the pre-contemplative or contemplative stages of change. To each other, we bring our struggles, daily experiences, and inner turmoil. Though the specific symptoms and behaviors of our eating disorders differ, a degree of body dysmorphia is something that we all share in common. It’s not that any of us suffer from body dysmorphic disorder, but when we look in the mirror, our brains have a way of distorting the image.
Within the safety of this familiar, little band, I stumbled into a startling discovery last week. As I listened quietly, one after another of these women, my friends, expressed their deep loathing of their bodies. It was painful to hear, and I was filled with empathy and sorrow. Yet, another emotion gripped me, which could best be described as excited gratitude. The meeting was drawing to a close. Unable to contain this perplexingly intense sensation, I wrapped my arms around myself squeezing my eyes tightly shut. An impish grin broke across my face, and I lifted my feet off the floor, stretching my legs out directly in front of me energetically as I declared, “I love my body!”
Part of me felt guilt for exhibiting such jubilation in the midst of so much suffering, but I couldn’t let the last word of that night be one of disparagement. As we departed, I meditated more deeply on these thoughts that were suddenly springing up inside of me. What I found was that…
I love the face that peers at me from the tiny square of bathroom mirror. A bit of makeup artfully conceals the acne scars and the red blotches. A little blush lights up my pale, monochromatic cheeks. I love my sparkling, hazel eyes, which appear to change shades depending on the color of the clothes I wear. I love my straight, pearly teeth and my even smile. My parents paid a lot of money in orthodontists’ bills so that I could share this smile with the world! I love my chin, which doesn’t recede and doesn’t protrude, but is perfect for my face. Just like my nose. I love my thick, auburn hair, the fineness of each strand, and its irremediable straightness.
I love being short! I fit into so many small places and tight spaces. It doesn’t even bother me that I can never reach the tops of high shelves. That’s why there are stools and tall people in the world. I love my petite hands and the writing bump on my right third finger. I love my feet and all the callouses that cover them. They tell the story of my life. After all the miles, all the experiences, all the long days and long nights of thankless work, the high and low adventures, and all the injuries, my feet remind me that I am resilient. And they remind me that I am not invincible. They invite me to take care of myself and to rest when I need it. My feet remind me to push my boundaries, and to know my limits. They remind me to accept what is, and to do what is needed. Oh, do I love my feet!
There are a few aspects of my body that I am learning to simply accept, like the chunk that is missing from my left eyebrow where I underwent a skin biopsy, and the unsightly acne that still peppers my face, chest, and back, even in my 30’s. I accept my aches and pains, my knotted muscles, and my chronic TMJ. Ultimately, I accept that my body is changing. The lines of my face are creeping and multiplying, their creases deepening. Here and there, I catch the glimmer of a silver strand of hair. The scattered, purple, spider veins that are barely visible on my thighs will one day spread into a dark, violaceous network to cover my legs, just like all the other women in my family. My weight may even (gasp) fluctuate. That last one is still the hardest for me to accept, yet it is the truth, and it is natural. It is just part of this experience of living. Because, in the final equation, my body serves a purpose. It is the temple of my soul. It is the vessel that carries me through this world. It enables me to do a great many things, though I remind myself that one day, it will fail. My faith tells me that I am wonderfully made. My faith also tells me not to be overly attached to my body, at least not as it is today, and not to idealize any physical standard of perfection. There is more to life, and death, and the life to come than can be contained in this organic being.
Perhaps my brain is changing, too. Perhaps, I’m rewiring, making new and different connections, overwriting the old, automatic, maladaptive signaling pathways. How did I move from waging a war of submission against my body to harboring this intense desire to hug myself in a giant, bearlike embrace? When did this shift happen? I’m not sure, but I like these feelings.
Fellow Kindness Challenge participant Ioana, who writes the poignant and thought-provoking blog Music Teacher Lifestyle, recently nominated me for the Three Day Quote Challenge. I love quotes, and I am grateful for any excuse to share some of my favorites (read here for round one). For this iteration of the quote challenge, the rules are pretty simple:
Three nominees each day
Whenever I read a quote that captures something timeless, true, or transcendent in just a few simple words, I feel a stretching and tugging in my chest, as if my heart is reaching out for more. I can alternately find a quote comforting, or consoling, or perhaps it pierces my thoughts to unify disparate strands of ideas for the first time. One relatively constant reaction that I experience when I encounter lines that speak to me is a sense of longing. “If only I could remember this always,” a little voice inside me whispers. “If only I could actually live this way. Will I ever get there?”
I scribble them in margins of pages and on bits and scraps of paper. I trace them on index cards in bright marker, accentuating the borders with tiny drawings. I read and re-read these little fragments, breathing the syllables deep into my lungs, praying that they may seep into my mind, wondering if all these efforts really leave any lasting imprint on me. I hope they do. I hope that these words are changing me as often as I reflect on them.
“To be just it is not enough to refrain from injustice. One must go further and refuse to play its game, substituting love for self-interest as the driving force of society.”
~ Pedro Arrupe, S.J.
“I don’t forgive people because I’m weak. I forgive them because I’m strong enough to know people make mistakes.”
~ Marilyn Monroe
“Forgiveness is the fragrance the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.”
~ Mark Twain
…and a bonus, because I stumbled upon this gem today and couldn’t keep it to myself.
“To love means loving the unlovable. To forgive means pardoning the unpardonable. Faith means believing the unbelievable. Hope means hoping when everything seems hopeless.”
When making New Year’s resolutions, some people choose a single word upon which to center themselves and find motivation or grounding. I don’t think that I possess the mindfulness, consistency, focus, or diligence to remain intentional about the same word for a straight 365 days. It is hard enough for me to stay intentional, ever, even briefly. Sometimes, I become frustrated with my lack of consistency, or my absence of thought-fullness, or my failure to keep present, and I find myself growing discouraged. Defeatism and self-criticism harden my heart while the muscles in my body that are under more conscious control tighten and clench. I clamp my jaw at myself and my own obstinacy. However, there is an alternative perspective to this negative self-labeling. Recollecting my dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), and asking how else I might understand or appreciate this situation, this unwanted identity I find myself saddled with, my wise mind softly suggests another explanation, “My self-sayings tend to shift with my needs, much like my other patterns of behavior. I’m not fickle. I’m adaptable.”
Fact check – is it true? One week, I am drawn toward my coloring books and pencils in my free time, and my dining room table spills over with slivers of wood shavings and sheaves of bright paper. Another week, the pool is where I find my solace, swimming stroke after steady stroke through the cool water as I watch the rippling patterns of the sun dancing across the tile beneath me. For a period, I rise early in the morning and read in bed from a book of daily scripture or one of the spiritual classics. Lately, it is Brother Lawrence’s Practicing the Presence of God. At other times, I am more overworked and sleep deprived, and I bury my face in my soft pillow, pressing the “snooze” button at least twice. I want to be more consistent. I want to make time to meditate for twenty minutes every day, take walks in the fresh air each afternoon, journal every morning, and read every evening. I want to develop the habit of cleaning up one or two rooms of my apartment each week, and I tell myself that if I could just hit my stride, I would never again fall behind on the house work. The honest truth is, though, I am probably not ever going to be that constant, or predictable, or “balanced.” As I type out my concept of an idyllic routine, another adjective occurs to me. Boring. I remind myself of my favorite definition of balance – a moment-by-moment adjustment to life’s constant unbalancing forces. Deep breath. Sigh out. The foundation never changes, but just how those elements manifest and in what proportions they coalesce to fill time are as changeable as sand dunes in a sweeping wind. Recognition of this fact (again) may be why I find myself transfixed by a certain word as I move through each day and from one activity or task to the next. Gentle.
The first week of The Kindness Challenge, hosted by Niki at The Richness of a Simple Life read thus: “Be Kind and Gentle with Yourself.” The challenge went on to prompt each participant to treat himself or herself like a close friend, replacing self-criticism, self-doubt, and self-shaming with love, tenderness, and compassion. Because, wrote Niki, “You have to love and accept yourself for who you are before you can expect for someone else to do so.” An interesting idea… But that was not what most captivated me when I contemplated self-compassion. The more critical question burning in my mind was, “How can I love another if I can’t love myself? How can I love God? How can I truly understand what love is?” These were the questions that sparked my recovery. These were the questions that changed my life. Or started changing it. After so many unsuccessful attempts at belittling and berating myself into changing, it wasn’t until I opened my eyes to God’s unsurpassed love for me, his unfathomable forgiveness, and his confounding, confusing, complete and unconditional acceptance of me right now, as I am (and as I was), in my broken, imperfect, iniquitous state, in the depth of the shame at the rock bottom of my eating disorder, that I started to recover. Who was I to withhold forgiveness from myself when God deemed me fit for forgiveness? Who was I to withhold love from myself when God found me worthy, despite all of my unworthiness, of receiving His perfect love?
For years, I worked, studied, read, analyzed, criticized, and slaved, to “fix myself” (i.e., be perfect), and the only visible result was that I sank deeper and deeper into anxiety, depression, neuroticism, social isolation, and a diseased mind and body. All those efforts weren’t for nothing, however. I can’t put my finger on the missing piece that finally unified the disparate fragments and focused a floodlight of insight on my struggle, but it smacked me in the face during a group session in the midst of my partial hospitalization stint. It was not as though I never underwent any changes before that moment, and it didn’t become any easier afterwards, but from that day forward, everything was different. The shift was painful and excruciatingly slow. It was an uphill battle against decades of mental illness, destructive and disordered thinking, and deeply patterned behavioral reactions. Only now I was fighting with LOVE.
With the epic struggle become more like day-to-day maintenance or a steady, lifelong construction project, the busyness of life can dull my attentiveness to that love. I tend to forget what it was like when gentleness, love, and compassion were novel and tender and needed my constant effort to willfully turn my mind around each time I found myself reacting automatically with cynicism, criticism, doubt, anger, righteousness, disdain, judgment, shame, blame, or resentment… which was pretty much every waking minute of every day. New automatic patterns take over. Some of the old ways still remain, although they are largely transmuted. It is not necessarily that I am in danger of sliding back into that same dark hole where I was once imprisoned, but slowly, subtly, the glow in my heart dims…
Enter The Kindness Challenge. Such was my state when I began the challenge, and I found myself revisiting the same questions that I confronted during those first few days of learning how to eat, how to trust others, how to trust myself, how to give myself permission to be imperfect/real/human/alive… What makes me worthy of love and belonging? Nothing. Only that I am a beautiful creature of my heavenly Father, created in the image and likeness of God, and filled with the Holy Spirit. I am just as broken and dysfunctional as every other human being, and I am just as endowed with the fullness of dignity and just as infinitely loved. How then, do I treat myself? Gently. In case I need another reminder, it is the Year of Mercy, after all.
“Nothing is so strong as gentleness, nothing so gentle as real strength.”
~ St. Francis de Sales
So… I went to bed early, and I took time out of my afternoons to meditate, if only for a few minutes. I exercised for the joy and pleasure of moving my body in a healthy, purposeful way, noticing the smells of the plants, the trills and chirps of the birds and crickets, the rustling of the leaves, and the chill of the breeze as I bicycled along the path near my house. I pushed my to-do list out of the way, and I pulled out my colored pencils. I held myself accountable, and I accepted my inevitable mistakes. I brushed myself off and I began again. I wrote down my gratitudes every day. Or nearly every day. I let go of being perfect or complete. Or I made an effort to let go. I took my time, and spent an extra two days to finishing this post. Deep breath. Sigh out. It’s a work in progress…
This new week brings a new chapter in The Kindness Challenge. As I endeavor to open my heart to appreciating the kindness all around me, I am making a note of the kindness that I find here, among my rich blogging community. And I am grateful. For another perspective on what it is like to cultivate self-love and self-compassion while recovering from an eating disorder, I encourage you to visit one of my favorite blogs, Beauty Beyond Bones. The author of this amazing blog writes beautifully and expressively about the emotional journey of recovery and of the process of reconnecting with God, self, and others. I always find unfailing kindness there. ♥
“Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice! Your kindness should be known to all. The Lord is near. Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
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.
“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.”
“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 thereis 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.”