Every Little Step

Featured Image:  “Early morning riser,” © Vincent Mumar (own work), Sep 2011. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

“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.

paralyzed
200.365 paralyzed by the same old antics,” © ashley rose (own work), Jan 2010. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

“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.”

~ Michelangelo

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.”

Backpacker in Cairns
Backpacker in Cairns,” © Jo Christian Oterhals (own work), Mar 2010. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

“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.”

~ J.R.R. Tolkein, The Lord of the Rings

Advertisement

Prayer for Morning

Featured Image: “New year’s Eve morning dew #1 20141231,” © Yasunari(康就) Nakamura(中村) (own work), Dec 2014. CC BY NC-ND 2.0. (license)

“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.

Compassion for Self and Kindness for Others

Featured Image: “Untitled,” © Jonas Witt (own work), Nov 2009. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

When I first began the Kindness Challenge, I was feeling frayed, haggard, and on the cusp. I felt overpowered and threatened by circumstances that were beyond my control. My coping skills were always, almost, utterly depleted under the unceasing exigency. Like a raw nerve, I cringed and recoiled at the slightest prick, hypersensitive in my anticipation of the next deluge. Edgy and exhausted, my thinking slipped into rigid patterns, my self-compassion waned, and I stumbled along a circuitous course of self-perpetuating frustration over my “regression.” My intention at the outset of the challenge was to reconnect with a gentler version of myself. Through the first few weeks, I honestly noticed little change. When the fourth week of the challenge began, I was ready to begin again with renewed energy.

“Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.”

~ Blessed Mother Teresa

The focus of week #4 was “Be Kind,” which sounded simple and direct enough. However, after practicing loving-kindness meditation for the past year while striving to bring a bit more good into the world as often as I could, I wasn’t sure how the week would be different from my routine. I was re-reading Niki’s wonderful list of suggested kind acts while thinking to myself, “I already make eye contact and chat with everyone I meet, both friends and strangers. I already hold open doors for people, I’m continually working on being a better listener, I often write encouraging notes to friends and family members, I donate money to the church every week and to my favorite charities every month, I try to go out of my way just a bit to help other people when I see they need a hand, and I endeavor to remain open to the smallest act that might add a little light to the world…”

“Miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love.”

~ St. Thérèse of Lisieux

As I mentally scrolled through this litany of kindnesses, trying to conceive of something novel (that also wouldn’t take up too much time in my zany, work-a-day life), I was struck by how difficult it was for me to acknowledge my ongoing efforts. (Even typing them out here feels boastful and wrong. “People will get the wrong idea about me,” the voice in my head is saying. “I’m not that good.”)

Oh, that little voice. It clings on. I am no longer feeling quite so fragmented. Time and space are a soothing balm, but so are prayer, meditation, and the gentle, consistent, understanding, and encouraging support of an expert therapist, a skilled dietician, and a host of patient friends and family. Whether my external circumstances are truly altered, or the shift is an internal one, or both (I suspect the combination), I am thinking and feeling better. I leave it up to those who know me well to judge if my subjective sense of improvement correlates at all with an exterior change in comportment, but I am telling myself that I am less reactive and volatile than I was a month ago. Of course, my mind and my moods ebb and flow, and I continue to struggle with difficult and distorted core beliefs, such as that I am a bad person, blameworthy and wicked. Yet, I accept that I am a work in progress, and this work is the enterprise of a lifetime.

tide
Tide,” © Supermariolxpt (own work), Nov 2008. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

After toting about the book, “The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion,” by Christopher Germer, for a couple of months, I finally started to earnestly read it again. I also found a few other, short articles by various authors about what I would call, for a lack of a better term, the wholehearted approach to building an enriching life. Perhaps I needed a little refresher. With a highlighter and a pencil, I plodded along, a little bit each day, allowing the words to percolate as I scribbled my reactions and ideas in the margins. When I noticed a troubling or repetitive thought or an unpleasant feeling, I jotted it down on a sheet of paper that I titled my “monologue diary.” In five, neat columns labeled situation, thoughts, emotions, rational responses, and outcomes, I attempted to identify my underlying self-talk and pinpoint the circumstances that prompted these automated messages, countering the distortions with compassionate but honest reframing.

“Unless this love is among us, we can kill ourselves with work and it will only be work, not love. Work without love is slavery.”

~ Blessed Mother Teresa

At the conclusion of each day, as I tucked myself into bed, I permitted a few moments to feel the crisp, cotton sheets against my skin, rub my tired feet, and reflect upon my day. I paused long enough to bring to mind the different conversations that I shared with friends and strangers, the smiles, laughter, and encouraging words that were exchanged, to remember the emails or text messages that I sent to my loved ones, the letters that I mailed, the prayers that I offered for others, and each small act of generosity, whether it be holding a door open or allowing someone to skip ahead of me in line. From a six-week course on positive psychology that I completed last summer through the free, online educational website, Coursera, I learned that meditating for even a short while on “micro-moments” of connection or positivity at the end of each day would affect not only my mood but my body chemistry and neurobiology. I brought to mind the experiences from the day that were not-so-great and reflected on the ways that I failed to live up to my values. Rather than blaming or castigating myself for all of my shortcomings, I offered myself the same kindness that I was trying to cultivate for others. “Nobody is perfect. Yes, I made mistakes, and it just proves that I am human. It just shows that I am still a work in progress. Tomorrow is another day and another opportunity to try again.” It was grounding and humbling. Silently whispering my prayers, asking for the help, the grace, and the strength to navigate the coming day with an open heart, I pressed my face into my squishy, soft pillow.

“I prefer you to make mistakes in kindness than work miracles in unkindness.”

~ Blessed Mother Teresa

A week later, my heart feels fuller, and my mind is more at ease. I continue to hear the sharply judgmental and critical voices telling me that I’m worthless, that I need to work harder and earn my redemption, and fearfully casting others as potential threats to my own best interests, but I understand where those messages come from, and I don’t become angry or frustrated with myself when they occur. I recognize that they are just thoughts and emotions, and that everyone experiences unwanted and unhelpful thoughts and emotions from time to time, but they don’t dictate who I am or the choices that I make. I still need practice. It feels like a tiny, baby step. The result thus far, though, is liberating. When I am compassionate with myself, my heart feels gentle, and I treat others the same way. The kindness flows outward, but it starts with me. Wishing you all a kind, gentle, compassionate day!

“Spread love everywhere you go. Let no one ever come to you without leaving happier.”

~ Blessed Mother Teresa

Gentle breeze
Gentle breeze,” © Bill Harrison (own work), Dec 2014. CC BY 2.0. (license)

Change

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

~ C.S. Lewis

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

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

~ Leo Tolstoy

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

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

~ St. Francis de Sales

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

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

~ Maria Robinson

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

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

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

~ Mary Anne Radmacher

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

Checking the Body Check

Featured Image:  “Hall of Mirrors,” © Levi Neeson, Aug 2013. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

There are certain places and certain chores that I perform that are more conducive to practicing mindfulness than others. Washing the dishes. Folding the laundry. And…showering. The hot water strikes the taught muscles at the base of my skull, gently thumping against them, coaxing their relaxation after a tense day spent sitting in front of a keyboard with my shoulders pulled up toward my ears. I feel the rivulets and streams as they run their course along my scapulae, my low back, down toward my brightly painted toes. This week, they are pink. Steam and heat build in the air around me, filling my lungs. The soap bubbles grow into a frothy, white lather that slips and slides smoothly over my hands and wrists. The scent of the soap is clean and refreshing. Sometimes, I bring my bottle of shampoo just under my nose so that I can take it in. I reach around my side, and into my head pops…Hmmm…it’s been awhile since I checked in the mirror to make sure I can still see my ribs and my sternum. I instantly recognize this as a disordered thought. It’s an eating-disorder thought, I tell myself. Damn it!

Fortunately, after entertaining this thought, I quickly managed to counter with the following: If I look in the mirror, and I can clearly see the bony outlines of my ribs, I will be reassured, but what does it mean? It means nothing, because the important thing is that I’m healthy. I’m at a healthy weight, I’m following my meal plan, I’m eating a variety of foods, I’m exercising moderately, and I’m remaining in recovery. I’m living a full, vibrant, balanced life, and it has nothing to do with whether or not I can see my ribs in the mirror. If I look in the mirror and I don’t see my ribs, what does it matter, because all those statements I just made about being healthy and balanced and happy are still true. So, if I can’t see my ribs, I will be making myself feel bad without reason. Therefore, I choose not to check. Hooray!

I tend to be rather forward-thinking. I’m always worried about stalling my progress and am constantly anxious about the status of my recovery. It’s difficult to stop myself long enough to appreciate the obstacles that I managed to overcome in the last 11 months.

Gone are the habitual practices of carefully examining my abdomen from every angle in any reflective surface, like the glass of storefronts or the shiny surfaces of cars. There was a time when I couldn’t pass a reflection without scoping out my appearance and using it as an opportunity to shame myself. Inspecting my stomach, I would pinch, poke, and prod myself cruelly, saying (sometimes screaming) terrible things to myself about how I was a worthless, fat, disgusting waste of life. I “motivated” myself toward improvement by undermining my value as a human being. It took hitting rock bottom for me to finally realize that it doesn’t work that way – my recovery now depends on radical acceptance, self-compassion, self-forgiveness, and the cultivation of my imperfections.

“There’s nothing interesting about looking perfect.”

~ Emma Watson

One afternoon during my stint in partial hospitalization, I called the friend who was house-sitting for me, and I asked her to chuck my multiple scales and my full length mirror into the dumpster. She was more than happy to oblige. I returned to my apartment a few weeks later and bagged up every belt and pair of pants that I once wore. These were the belts and pants that I used to rip on and off violently in a desperate, emotionally fueled effort to berate myself for my unacceptable binging, to convince myself that I was gaining weight and that I needed to dramatically change my ways. I dropped them in the donation bin outside the church down the street and didn’t look back. I stopped whiling away entire afternoons perusing old photographs of myself or scrolling through the Facebook feeds of “friends” I met on one occasion five years ago, tearfully admonishing myself for being such a failure. I “unfriended” all those strangers and adjusted my feeds to deliver daily updates from Brené Brown, Recovery Warriors, Walden, my church, and the dozen odd friends and family with whom I keep in close contact. In the grocery store checkout aisle, I avert my eyes from the glossy magazines displaying air-brushed photos of celebrities to whom I am meant to find myself inadequate by comparison. Rather, I smile at the woman behind the register, catch her eye, and chat with her about her plans for the weekend when her shift lets off.

“I don’t love Photoshop; I like imperfection. [Imperfection] doesn’t mean ugly. I love a girl with a gap between her teeth, versus perfect white veneers. Perfection is just… boring. Perfect is what’s natural or real; that is beauty.”

~ Marc Jacobs

Nowadays, when I fall asleep, I do so wearing comfortable, soft, baggy pajamas, laying on my side, surrounded by soft pillows and curled into a relaxed little ball. I don’t fall asleep on my back, staring at the ceiling, stroking my iliac crests, reassuring myself that they are still protruding against the tight skin of my hips. One of the goals that I set for myself when I began the partial hospitalization program the day before Thanksgiving 2014 was that I wanted to be able to step back on the scale and accept the number. What I discovered over this past year was something even better. I am accepting myself without a number. The only two people on this planet who know how much I weigh are my nutritionist and my psychiatrist, who both allow me to stand on their office scales backwards at our appointments. Can I allow myself the acknowledgement of what a remarkable transformation that represents?

Yes, I still have a long way to go. Yes, I still have disordered thoughts about food and about my body. Yes, I am still afraid of gaining weight. I worry about relapsing and about slipping into old behaviors. But, gosh darn it, I am checking my body checks, and that is progress.

Check and Mate,” © Ben_from_Dk, Feb 2011. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Rigidly Flexible

Featured Image: “New York,” © BKL (original work), Jul 2013. CC-BY-NC 2.0.

If I haven’t gained any weight since I left Walden, but I wasn’t exercising at all during the winter, and I’m much more active now, yet my weight is still stable, then I must be eating more now than I was when I was at Walden. So, if I want to keep eating the way that I’m eating, which I think is healthy and varied, then I need to keep exercising. If I stop exercising, then I will gain weight. But the tendinitis in my ankle hurts. If I exercise, I will make my ankle worse, but if I don’t exercise, then I will be avoiding exercise, and there is probably nothing really all that wrong with my ankle, and then I will develop a pattern of avoidance behaviors, which will just make me think about my ankle more, which will only make the experience of pain worse.

 I can’t have turkey today, because I ate turkey the last three days in a row. That is too much turkey. I can’t have egg salad, because I had poached eggs on toast yesterday. Greek yogurt with 2% fat is too calorie-dense to pair with salmon on a day when I ate my optional second starch with lunch. I can’t eat dessert today. I ate dessert yesterday. Two desserts in two days is too often. I need some dessert-free days in between.

It’s been four weeks since I last made a drawing. The right side of my brain is dying. When was the last time I used my coloring books? Coloring a picture that someone else drew may not be creative enough. I don’t think that counts as creativity. I am not balancing all of my interests well enough. I am not spending enough time journaling. I am falling behind in my food diary. When was the last time that I cooked quinoa? I am eating too much toast. I think my diet was more varied a few months ago. I think I am losing variety in my diet. How many times did I go to the gym this week? When was the last time I read anything out of my Brené Brown book? 

A Jumble of Stairs and Escalators and Struts,” © Denny Wu, Aug 2014. CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0.

“Your brain is a very busy place,” remarked my friend, Dorothy, over dinner one Wednesday night. I was recounting just a portion of some of the above thoughts that frequently spin through my consciousness on a somewhat continual basis.

“Tell me about it,” I agreed. “But,” I added, “It’s sort of the difference between having a thought and believing a thought.” I turned my head to one side thoughtfully. Like an owl, observed the color commentator between my ears. “I can hold all these ideas in my head, but they don’t necessarily cause me distress. Sometimes, when they are very persistent, they make me physically anxious, and I can feel my muscles tensing up, or my jaw locking, but at the same time that all of these thoughts are pinging around in there, another voice is saying, ‘Really? Seriously? Are we going to go through this again?’” What a change from a year ago!

When I confided in my therapist just how RIGID I can become about trying to FORCIBLY remain FLEXIBLE, she suggested, “It sounds like the rules are starting to creep back in.” As if to caution, “Uh oh!”

I suppressed what was almost a chortle. “You’re assuming that the rules ever went away. I don’t think they did. Whereas before, I was aware of them and simply tolerated them, now I am bringing more attention to the fact that they are still present.”

Maybe dispelling the background noise rather than just challenging the words is the next step. It would be a big one, because those thoughts do still influence my behavior. I am regimented about being varied. I am disciplined about being able to go with the flow. It’s the mother of all ironies. What would I do without this predictability in my life? What would I do without my rules? I’m scared to find out, but Dorothy’s voice echoes in my busy mind, “AVOID AVOIDING!” It’s on my list of rules.

Dream #2,” © ڪario Reale (Own Work), Apr 2009. CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0.

I’d like to extend a big “THANK YOU!” to Ruby Browne, whose poetically honest piece, Hover, inspired me to write this post. Your wit and wisdom are a gift. Thank you for sharing them with the world.

Riding Shotgun

Featured Image: “Le Jour ni l’Heure 0538: La Place du mort, rives du loch Rannoch, Perth & Kinross, Écosse, samedi 14 avril 2012, 18:49:25,” © Renaud Camus, Apr 2012. CC-BY-2.0.

I did then what I knew how to do.

Now that I know better, I do better.

~ Maya Angelou

It’s autumn. My favorite season. But last year, at this time, I was in the deepest, darkest place of my life. Last year, I was spiraling into a hole that I couldn’t climb out of, and it nearly cost me my life. It’s a hard thing to remember, and lately, there are many reminders.

“Are you going to allow yourself to celebrate your success?” Kelly, my nutritionist, asked me at our last appointment. Her message was that I needed to mark the occasion of my first year in remission. “Even if it’s small, with just a few people,” she encouraged me. I could appreciate her argument.

I am not one to permit myself an accomplishment or a victory. There is always some way I could be better, and the journey is far from complete. My recovery will be the work of my lifetime. Always ongoing. Always in progress. It’s fragile. I’m fragile. Perhaps, I’m not quite as fragile as I was during those first few days, weeks, and months, but isn’t it enough to just try to live this day of my recovery? Today? I tell myself that celebrating the one-year milestone does not make me more likely to relapse. Acknowledging an achievement does not mean that I am setting myself up to fail. But I am still afraid of what the future holds. And so, can’t I just focus on today?

“It’s not as simple as celebrating your success after a year in recovery,” my therapist affirmed when I tried to express my complicated thoughts and feelings swirling around the subject. Juxtaposed against my climb out of the chasm is the fall into it. While my recovery really began in earnest at the end of November, my rock bottom occurred in the days and weeks just preceding it. My memories are neither objective nor clear, but October was the worst month.

The person I was then would be unrecognizable to me now, except that she is me. I was a wreck. I was depressed, suicidal, and barely functional. I marvel as I try to imagine how I managed to get myself showered, dressed, (I applied makeup and fixed my hair every day, no less!), then to and from work each day. When I wasn’t at work… I’ll spare the graphic details, but it wasn’t a pretty picture. Of course, I only know what it looked like and felt like from inside my head. “You have this idea that you were a babbling, incoherent, disaster. You seem to think that you couldn’t string two words together to make a sentence,” my friend and co-worker, Steve told me. A thick, brown envelope sat on the desk between us with a case number scrawled on the side in black Sharpie. “Your judgment wasn’t quite there, but just read it. I think you’ll find it’s actually very well-written. It makes sense. It’s a good write-up. You made a snap decision and it was the wrong one, but it’s a good write-up.” The folder contained the contents of work that I produced when I was on my downward spiral. At my absolute worst, I only ever made one significant misjudgment on the job. Well, three, but it was the same misjudgment made three times. Within the folder was the first of those instances. My co-workers corrected the effects of my errors, reworking my concluding statements, and then they covered my workload for me while I was in treatment, and now that file was up for its annual review. Once more, it found its way to my inbox. I started to cry. I didn’t want to read it. I didn’t want to relive it. I didn’t want to face the person I was and the things that I did, because it wasn’t just this one case, it was all of it. The daily binges so severe that I was sure my insides would explode and I would die. The catatonia into which I would sink the moment I left our office building. A hidden life of shame. Laying on the floor of my living room every night, the detritus of my binging spread around me, flooded with mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical pain. “You are not that person anymore,” Steve stated. “You are my go-to. Don’t be afraid of this. It’s a chance for healing, or to close the loop. I think you’ll feel better when you bring it to completion.” Deep down, I knew he was right, so I picked up the folder, and headed back to my office.

Files,” © Artform Canada, Feb 2009. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

“It feels important that I be able to forgive myself at this stage,” I told my therapist during our session that afternoon. “I processed this during my very first weeks of recovery, but then the new skills sort of took hold, and I didn’t think about it much.” She asked me how. How do I forgive myself for what I did? What I did to myself. What I did to the people around me.

Love. LOVE. Love can be the only answer. “When I was driving back from Massachusetts, I practiced this visualization,” I began. “I did a lot of prep work with my counselors before I left in order to cope with returning to the environment where I was using behaviors for so long, and I would practice telling myself, ‘The scenery is the same, but I am different.’ And I worked on accepting everything that happened before. Instead of denying it, I had to accept that it’s part of me. It’s my story. It’s part of who I am. My old self is part of who I am, and she deserves to be acknowledged. She deserves love. So I would talk to myself in the past and picture her sitting in the passenger seat next to me during that long drive. I would tell her, ‘We’re in this together, and I won’t leave you behind. I am sorry for everything that you went through, and I know that you did your best. I know that you were in a very bad place, and I know you were just hurting so badly and didn’t know what to do, but it’s going to be ok now. I forgive you for hurting us, and you don’t have to be afraid or hurt anymore, because we have new skills now, and I’m going to take care of us. I won’t forget you and I won’t deny you, because you are right here with me, but now it’s your turn to rest. So don’t worry, because I’ll take care of us now.’”

When I finally opened that brown folder and began to read, I was surprised. The words flowed eloquently, and the narrative was seamless. The conclusions were based on shaky reasoning that was likely the result of impatience, anger, resentment, and the overly rigid, all-or-nothing thinking that permeated every aspect of my life at that time, but the sentences were coherent. I could feel my tense muscles relax just a bit. Steve was right. I’ll never know objectively who or what or how I was during those weeks and months. It affected me too personally. But maybe I wasn’t the total failure I believed myself to be.

“The same traits that have made you so successful at everything else are going to make you successful at this,” a friend told me as I was leaving to enter partial hospitalization for my eating disorder.

“What are those traits?” my therapist asked last week.

“I never quit. Ever. Not ever. I’m smart. I work hard. I am always searching for answers and trying to improve. And I have hope. That’s probably what saved my life. When I would be sitting in my car at a red light and think, ‘I could just drive home and park in the garage with this thing running. It would be so easy,’ my next thought would be, ‘But what if tomorrow is the day something changes? What if tomorrow, God finally answers my prayers?’ When I think back to that time and the other times in my life when I was severely depressed, I sometimes think the greatest achievement is simply that I survived.”

So, to my former self, the me that I was a year ago, thank you. You survived. I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for you and your stubborn refusal to give in. You are a SURVIVOR. I am proud to have you with me on this journey.

Though much is taken, much abides; and tho’

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

~ Alfred Lord Tennyson, Ulysses

Psssst…. I Have a Secret

Featured Image:  “Black Capped Chickadee,” © Tony Alter, Feb 2012. CC-BY-SA-2.0.

“It’s going to be OK!”  Shocker!  I know!  When I am not whispering these words to myself, I probably could be.  As Elliot* the charmingly precocious, three-going-on-four year-old son of my friend-and-former-college-roomate, Alice, often says, “Here’s the thing…”

It turns out that in much the same way that through repeated self-talk I became undeniably, firmly, entirely, almost delusively convicted of the unarguable, irrefutable, incontrovertible fact that I was a) hideously, disgustingly fat, b) horrifically, unnaturally worthless, and c) so seriously flawed, broken, and defective that I must have been some sort of accident or mistake of God’s creation… by repeating to myself over and over and over and OVER a bazillion times that all of this mess of life’s journey, “Might just turn out OK in the end, eventually, some day… why don’t I just wait and see…” I am actually coming to believe it!  It’s as if every time I repeat the statement, I am shoveling some dirt over the ruts left in my brain’s neural networks where the automatic negative thoughts used to fire away in fractions of a second while laying down new tracks for healthier, positive automatic thoughts.

I would not have believed that these changes of mind and heart were possible six months ago.  A few weeks past, during an appointment with Kelly, my nutritionist, she leaned in and, half laughing, half grinning, with a twinkle in her eye, asked me, “You DO know that all of this turns out OK in the end, right?”  It was as if she was in on the secret, and suddenly I felt in my soul that she wasn’t just making shit up to placate my anxieties.

Here’s the thing… I’m learning to trust my Wise Mind.  It’s my Wise Mind, which I sometimes also call my Reasonable Mind, that whispers to me, “Hey, you know this is going to be OK, right?”  My Wise Mind is that concerned, comforting, compassionate voice in my head that listens to all of my screaming, crying, arguing, debating, and ruminating, and then says, “Are you done yet?  Let’s go over this again…”  It’s not judgmental, critical, or harsh.  It’s forgiving, but it’s also honest and holds me accountable.  “So, let’s review why that wasn’t the best decision,” might be something my Wise Mind would say.  And then it would conclude, “But, you know what?  I have a secret… It’s all going to be OK.”

*Names have been changed

Photo Credit: Thomas Schultz,
Photo Credit: Thomas Schultz, “DTI-sagittal-fibers,” CC-BY-SA-2.0, Sep 2006. Dataset is courtesy of Gordon Kindlmann at the Scientific Computing and Imaging Institute, University of Utah, and Andrew Alexander, W. M. Keck Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior, University of Wisconsin-Madison.