Breakfasting

Featured Image:  “Night Street,” © Roman Boed (own work), Oct 2014. CC BY 2.0. (license)

Morning is my favorite time of day. However, don’t let me fool you. When I declare my love for morning, I do not claim that I am a “morning person.” Though I tend to arise earlier than most, I generally arrive late for my first commitment of the day. I once read that lateness arises from arrogance – the belief that my own time and priorities are more important than those of anyone else. While I see the truth in this statement, my delinquency is also the result of chronically underestimating how long it takes me to complete those basic self-care tasks that are generally non-negotiable parts of my morning routine, such as brushing my teeth and making my bed. If I wake up so early, why do I not simply leave myself more time to choose clothes to wear, apply my makeup, and blow-dry my hair? The answer is straightforward. The more time that I spend on these chores, the less I am able to linger over that which actually makes morning my favorite. It is in the soft, dark, almost mysterious minutes when I sit with my cup of tea (or coffee, but lately, tea), savoring the stillness of the world before daybreak that I truly delight.

The earth is at rest. The streets are quiet and empty. From my bedroom, if the air is very calm as I listen carefully, I can hear an occasional, faint whoosh of a distant truck speeding along the highway where it crosses under the main road a few miles off. It is amazing how the sound carries when the rest of the world is asleep. Usually, I hurry to ready myself before I nip downstairs. Splashing water on my face, rolling on antiperspirant, and fussing with my hair, I can’t get through these onerous bits of my morning ritual quickly enough. It takes ten minutes to boil the water for my tea and prepare my breakfast. While my other meals throughout the day vary according to my mood or taste (or the expiring contents of my refrigerator), my breakfast is rather consistent. I choose between a selection of teas or coffees, and I alternate the type of chopped nut that I add to my piping hot bowl of oatmeal, but the remainder is always the same. With a cup of soy milk and an apple, the meal is complete. I can be flexible when the situation demands it, such as when I am traveling, but that flexibility usually ends at bringing a packet of plain instant oatmeal, some chopped nuts, and an apple with me in my carry-on, then grabbing some hot water and a cup of soy milk on the go.

There is something sublime about the predawn hour. It possesses a subrosa, almost transcendental quality. In my very active imagination, there is a magic here that is reserved for we early risers. It is as if by awaking before the rest of the world, we are in on some mutual secret that we each experience individually and share only with God. The day is a black canvas, awaiting the light and color of the artist’s brush. It might yet become anything at all. It is a stage plunged into opacity, before the blazing spotlights shine upon it and all the myriad supporting actors crowd the scene, bringing the set to life. What will be of this day; who will I be within it? What challenges will I face, and how will I respond to them? In these moments before I exit my apartment into a stream of noise and busyness, I can hope that I will maintain some small amount of mindfulness, live purposefully, and respond to the circumstances I will encounter with actions that are in accordance with my values. I can still hope that I will not react in fear, attempt to control the uncontrollable, lash out at others, or fall into the often-automatic trap of blaming, shaming, and judgment. I can still hope that, by the end of the day, I will be able to reflect on what was with some sense of joy rather than the deflated exhaustion of one who feels like she was dragged behind a truck over an uneven road all day.

Leaning over the steam that arises from my mug, I relish this breakfasting. A small candle flickers in the center of the dining room table. The cat sits on the chair next to me, at first watching me eat, then arching his back for a scratch, then hopping down to nibble from his own bowl, and finally curling up on the chair once more to nap. My journal is spread out before me, and my hand alternates between spoon, mug, and pen. Sometimes, I reflect on recent personal events or conversations with my therapist, at other times, I write about a book that I am reading. Often, I write about the sights and sounds and smells around me, and oh, how much I love the morning!

coffee-winters-morning
Coffee on a Winter’s Morning,” © Stefan Lins (own work), Mar 2013. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

“Before you go to Paris, you’re going to have to go out to breakfast,” declared Kelly, my dietician, several weeks ago.

“Psssshhhhh!” was my almost immediate rejoinder. “As if,” I laughed, while simultaneously acknowledging the essentiality of the challenge. My eyes were rolling in my head, and from my tone, she could tell that I knew she was right. “Ugh, this is going to suck, isn’t it?” Even one lost breakfast experience seemed a major blow, so attached was I to my ritual. Making accommodations for a flight or fasting bloodwork or some other necessity was one matter. To voluntarily sacrifice my favorite meal and my favorite moments for no purpose other than to practice eating other breakfasts was something else entirely.

“I didn’t say you had to do it now,” Kelly emphasized. “You have a few months.”

It turned out that I didn’t need a few months. The day of the breakfast challenge arrived last weekend. It came without any fanfare and without much anticipation. On a Friday evening, the thought occurred to me, “I could go out to breakfast tomorrow.” It was an unbidden inkling of an idea, to which I attached no pressure or expectation. “Where would I even go?” I wondered. It was years ago that I last dined out for my first meal of the day. There were two or three restaurants nearby that served breakfast, but when I looked up their hours and menus online, I was a bit flabbergasted. Even the smallest plates were overwhelming. I certainly did not need TWO eggs, AND sausage, AND hash browns, AND two toasts. Couldn’t I simply order one egg and one piece of toast and some fruit? This undertaking was supposed to be preparing me to eat a reasonably portioned meal for everyday of the week while on the road. My objective was not to induce a food coma. Perhaps I was going about my search with the wrong approach. If I was setting off to visit the Louvre or to spend the day touring the Eiffel Tower, I likely wouldn’t sit down at a formal restaurant. “Where would I eat if I was traveling?” I asked myself. A few more clicks took me to the website for the Panera around the corner. Open at 6 am! Well, I would see how I felt in the morning.

When I stirred from my restful slumber at just about 6 am, the thought of a breakfast adventure was still on my mind. I pet the cat, made the bed, fixed my hair and makeup, and pulled on the same comfortable slacks that I frequently wear when flying. After pausing to wash the dishes from the night before, I cast off into the deepness of the dark. The streets were empty, and the world was silent. Inside the café, the light shone brightly upon a half-dozen patrons quietly sipping their coffees and studying their newspapers. A minimal staff took my order with pleasant smiles – to think that other people knew how to prepare oatmeal, too! Sitting in a cushioned booth, angled rays from various lights cast translucent layers of shadow upon my journal page. I bit into my apple. The heat radiating from the mug of coffee brushed against the side of my face. “What a treat this is!” I wrote in my narrow cursive. “To be out to breakfast! My secretive morning! Now, I am sharing it with these people who are all drawn together in this little haven. I was so concerned that my favorite time of day would be ruined. I never considered that, under the proper conditions, it might be enhanced!”

There I sat, writing, savoring, and soaking in all that my senses perceived until the sky was soft blue and a crowd was beginning to materialize. The last words that I wrote? “So here I am, and it is delightful. It is 10 minutes until 8 am, and the magenta stripe on the horizon is melting into a lovely pink. The whole day is ahead of me, but it is off to a decent start.”

cafe-noir
CAFE-NOIR,” © Sam Leighton (own work), Jan 2014. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

2017: The Year of “Oui!”

Featured Image:  “Paris,” © Moyan Brenn (own work), Sep 2007. CC BY 2.0. (license)

Those of you familiar with my blog and my recovery journey may recall me writing about my passion for travel. When I was much younger, I would pour over my mother’s old photo albums for hours as she entertained me with tales from her years of serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Jamaica. I wanted to know the world the way she did. There she was, standing atop Machu Pichu, relaxing on the beaches of the Caribbean, wandering the streets of Columbia, gazing at the ocean from the deck of a boat crossing the Atlantic, straddling the Greenwich meridian, and standing at the gates of Auschwitz. In the basement of our single-story ranch in Connecticut, there were boxes of artifacts from her travels – fabrics from Hawaii, reed instruments from Peru, all sorts of strange shells and sea sponges from far away beaches, delicately embroidered handicrafts from a tiny village in South America… Her stories and the wonderful trappings of her journeys ignited my imagination.

When I was a sophomore in high school, I convinced my parents to allow me to fly unaccompanied to Alabama for a week at Space Camp. It was my first airplane flight! I worked hard to raise the money for the trip, and my mom and dad gave me my very first suitcase for my 16th birthday that May. I felt so independent and grown-up as I navigated the complex underground network of the Atlanta airport to make my connecting flight. And so, it began. My first international trip was also a solo journey. I jetted from Boston to Shannon, Ireland when I was 21 to connect with one of my roommates who was studying abroad in Galway. Together, we undertook a 5-day whirlwind tour of the southern part of the country, and I learned two important travel lessons.

  1. Sleep is essential. No sleep? No memories of a marvelous trip!
  2. I will never stay in a hostel again! (Although it’s difficult to recall why…)

Over the ensuing years, I lost track of the number of tickets purchased and miles logged. When my health began to fail and my eating disorder started to emerge, those exciting explorations of new places and cultures took on a more sinister character. During my last trip to Germany in 2014, I was seriously ill, but I was too stubborn to cancel my plans. Weak and exhausted, depressed and barely coping, I spent two miserable weeks during a bleak, cold January immersed in guilt, shame, and my own distorted thinking. I returned home with terrible plantar fasciitis, my depression, self-blame, and hopelessness worsened, and I gave up on the idea of ever venturing abroad again.

Over the next year, I waged a bloody, bare-knuckled, no-holds-barred, fight for my life. By January 2015, I was discharging from a partial hospitalization program and battling my way into an existence I never knew was possible for me. (Reflecting on that time, I am amazed at how intensely courage and terror could coincide.) As I explored and redefined my concepts of health, eating, my personal values, my friendships, my beliefs about my body, my faith, my beliefs about myself, my family connections, my professional goals… virtually every aspect of my reality… I also forged a new relationship with travel. It emerged out of necessity and I would ever venture internationally again. My passport expired, and the renewal application sat collecting dust in a basket on my desk.

Then, something unpredictable and rather remarkable happened. I grew a little bit. And then, something even more unpredictable and remarkable happened. I grew a little bit more. I started to imagine what it might be like to see Paris some day. Every food challenge brought me a teensy bit closer to that ultimate goal. As my plantar fasciitis healed and my rigidity around food lessened, the city of lights began to seem less and less fantastical and more and more realistic. “Well, this is practice for Paris,” I caught myself thinking whenever I encountered an obstacle or when my flexibility was stretched to new limits. “Soon.” The word hung in the air. I would be seeing Paris soon. With every successful navigation of a potential “disaster,” I was that much better prepared for the challenges I would face in France. Soon, I would be ready.

Aware of my aim, my therapist and dietician set small milestones for me. In September, after a bit of planning and strategizing, I ate my first baguette with butter. There was no planning or strategizing required when I discovered the avocados my mom picked up at the grocery store weren’t ripe during my visit home just before Christmas. Without a second’s hesitation (or the use of any measuring spoons), I added butter to my side of bread to meet my fat exchange for dinner. “It’s great preparation for Paris!” I exclaimed to my somewhat stunned mother.

In 2017, there is a new time sensitivity to my need to poise myself for this next leap of faith in my recovery. I will be seeing Paris soon. I will be seeing Paris in 131 days and 23 hours, to be exact. That’s right. The plane tickets are purchased. The hotel is reserved. The guidebook is now adorned with sticky notes and penciled stars. Creased, folded sheets of hand-written notations are stuck in between the pages, waiting to be copied into my Moleskine travel journal. In nearly every daily event, I am hunting for an opportunity to practice for Paris. “What is this situation offering me for the future?” I ask myself whenever a mix of distressing emotions bubbles up inside me.

There are many questions and uncertainties ahead. The year 2017 is going to be one of growth and transition. And transitions, even good ones, have a tendency to, well, sort of suck. For me, the trick is to acknowledge and validate the misery I experience while simultaneously engaging with my positive experiences, including curiosity, excitement, and even pride. After all, c’est la vie! 

“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”

~ Ernest Hemmingway

paris-2
Paris,” © barnyz (own work), June 2013. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

Critical Moments

Featured Image:  “American & Italian Cuisine,” © GmanViz (own work), Nov 2007. CC BY NC-ND 2.0. (license)

An extrovert trying to be an introvert to avoid being hurt… that was how my first therapist described me. Isolation and feelings of loneliness were always sources of pain for me. Exploring my need to be in the company of other people and embracing the discomfort and uncertainty inherent in the swampland of forging personal connections was a first beyond the entrenched cognitive-behavioral-emotional loops of my chronic depression. Reengaging with old friends and building new relationships were dramatic shifts outside of my comfort zone, and these efforts were challenging enough. At a time when I was also waging a pitched war for my life against binge eating disorder, the fact that many (perhaps most) social situations involved food only heightened the drama. My recovery from my depression and my eating disorder were too interdependent to be dissected apart. As I battled on, my friend Amelia was a close ally on both fronts. We fell into a routine of meeting up after work every few weeks for dinner, making our way through a circuit of the best local restaurants in our little area. Over seltzer with lime and decaf black coffee, we shared all the details of our lives, from the most mundane to the deepest and most heartfelt. Each meal was anticipated with delight as an opportunity to be genuine and authentic for a few hours. In the comfortable cocoon of merry conversation, I grew increasingly resilient as I coped with one menu and then the next.

In April, Amelia accepted an offer of a new position and relocated to a city five hours away. It was a long-expected move, and there was nothing sudden about it. I was excited for her, and I was prepared for the change, but there was a difference between predicting loneliness and then actually feeling it. Over the summer, I continued to travel frequently, remained involved in all of my meaningful activities, and maintained my connections with all of my long-distance friends. Yet… I spent much of my time alone. It didn’t always feel like loneliness. I remained connected and I didn’t dwell in any sense of isolation or entertain self-pity. However, every once in a while, I felt the definitive absence of my friends. At times, my therapist and I spoke about the subject, but we never arrived at any useful conclusions. I continued to participate in yoga, I lingered after mass each Sunday to chat with my casual acquaintances from my parish, and, every so often, I went out to lunch with some of my coworkers. None of those fleeting connections filled the empty space in my heart that longed for a kindred spirit.

It was a Friday afternoon a few weeks ago, and I was leaving work in just such a state. I was at the nadir of a several-day funk, and I was not looking forward to a solitary weekend. My mood was low and my anxiety was piqued, triggered by automatic, alarming, all-or-nothing type thoughts about an upcoming professional conference and all the logistics of another trip. To an entirely new city. Alone.

My phone buzzed, and a lengthy text message popped onto the screen. It was Amelia! “Pete and I are headed your way for the weekend! There’s a cycling convention in town. I know it’s last minute, but we’re going out for dinner at Giovanni’s on Saturday night if you want to come. Let me know!” Amelia was returning at precisely the moment it seemed that I needed her most! My heart perked, but my head reeled at the name of the restaurant. Giovanni’s was decidedly unsafe.

“Lord, you have probed me, you know me: / you know when I sit and stand; / you understand my thoughts from afar. / You sift through my travels and my rest; / with all my ways you are familiar. / Even before a word is on my tongue, / Lord, you know it all. / You formed my inmost being; / You knit me in my mother’s womb. / My very self you know.”

~ Psalm 139:1b-4,13,14b

Competing ideas zipped into my consciousness. “No,” was a prominent voice. “No” to the menu, “no” to the restaurant, and “no” to everything that they both represented to me. Giovanni’s exemplified everything that I found repugnant in American food culture. It was about as far from authentically Italian as one could possibly find. The fare was entirely Midwestern American, featuring pasta with a side of bread, served with meatballs, sausage, salami, and pepperoni, heavily doused with cheese, cream sauces, and more cheese, and served with a garnish of tomato sauce. The three salads on the menu consisted mainly of iceberg lettuce, croutons, and, you guessed it, more cheese. The only entrée that included a vegetable was fried eggplant parmesan. There weren’t even any vegetable sides offered.

lightly-breaded
Lightly Breaded,” © Gexydaf (own work), Jun 2012. CC BY NC-ND 2.0. (license)

Against these objections, I also heard myself stating a decisive, Yes.” My memory of a recent appointment with my dietician resonated, and I couldn’t escape the echoed repetitions of Kelly’s voice, “You may not skip social things because of food.” I was grateful for her clear, direct manner, which left little room for quibbling. “Yes” to Kelly, “yes” to Amelia, and “yes” to connection, friendship, and wholeheartedness. I couldn’t conceive how I would manage the menu, but there was little utility in obsessing over it. Reading and rereading the descriptions of the unappealing choices would not alter them or make them more acceptable. Memorizing every deplorable detail would only make me more anxious. I admitted to myself that there were no safe choices; I replied to Amelia that I was not in the least bit comfortable with the restaurant; and I expressed my tremendous joy at the prospect of seeing her again, committing myself, for better or worse, to whatever this dinner entailed. Decision made, I settled into waiting with a combination of exuberance and resigned acceptance.

As afternoon succeeded morning on Saturday, a familiar exchange revolved through my head. Yes/no. Excitement/acceptance. Tranquility/anxiety. Amelia and Pete were at their cycling convention, and I awaited their word on a dinner time. It wasn’t until 3:30pm that I heard from them. Could I meet at the restaurant in two hours? Typically, 5:30pm would be “way too early” for me to eat, especially given the typical later timing of my weekend lunch. However, on this particular Saturday, I was grateful that the short notice left me little interval for pre-planning, advance calculations, or ruminations. Still in yoga tights and looking a teensy bit too disheveled for a sit-down meal, even at the most casual of places like Giovanni’s, my main concern was making myself presentable and getting across town in under 120 minutes.

When I arrived (only 10 minutes late – which is just on time for me!), I was so flooded with the excitement of seeing my beloved friend that I could barely focus on anything else. It was impossible to read a menu and survey all the sights and sounds of my new environment while maintaining the bubbling flow of conversation that gushed forth the instant Amelia and I reunited. I tripped my way to the table, so distracted I was peering over my shoulder in an attempt to keep her in sight, as words tumbled out in all directions from both sides. It was after the waitress paused at our table for the third time to take our orders that I concluded it was time to settle into dedicated concentration for the task at hand – to hobble together some sort of manageable compromise from a truly abysmal list of choices.

“It is just one day.”

“It is just one meal.”

“It is not going to kill me.”

“I can do this.”

When the pleasant waitress returned once more, I smiled sweetly and asked innocently, “Do you have any side vegetable dishes?” I fully expected her negative answer, but I wasn’t yet discouraged or dissuaded. “Do you have any vegetables?” I asked in my most saccharine way. Like, at all? Like, in the entire restaurant? Like, could you go to the grocery store and buy me a carrot?

She twisted one corner of her mouth and scrunched her nose as if she was racking her brain. “You know what, let me check,” she responded kindly. I tried not to be too appalled that it seemed like such a bizarre, foreign idea that a patron would want to eat a vegetable with her dinner. A few moments later, she returned triumphantly with the answer: there were spinach and red peppers in the kitchen.

“Perfect!” I internally rejoiced. I asked her if it would be too much trouble to steam some spinach for me. She offered to sauté it. I asked her to sauté it lightly, ordered the grilled chicken with pasta and pesto, and said a little prayer under my breath that my meal wouldn’t arrive at the table swimming in oil. “It’s out of my control now,” I told myself as I settled back into the rhythm of conversation, happy, content, acquiescent, pleased, relaxed, and willing.

“It is just one day.”

“It is just one meal.”

“It is not going to kill me.”

“I can do this.”

It would be a lie if I denied that I was unconcerned about gaining weight. Those thoughts were present. I was upset and disturbed by the food selection and by the relationships with food and eating behaviors reflected around me. However, in a moment when I was faced with a choice to isolate within the safe, protective shell of my eating disorder or turn all of my self-protective instincts upside down, I committed to the uncertain path, and I forged ahead without wavering. It felt risky, it felt reckless, and it felt real. In a less-than-ideal situation, I did better than cope. It felt like progress.

day-148
Day 148,” © Flood G. (own work), Feb 2012. CC BY NC-ND 2.0. (license)

Burgers in Wonderland

Featured Image:  “Super Bowl cheeseburgers,” © Stephen Ritchie (own work), Feb 2010. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

Shifting from someone concerned about making health-conscious food choices to a person with profoundly limiting orthorexia was subtle. My decompensation slowly progressed over several years, though my caloric restriction and weight loss were fairly dramatic and abrupt. When I first entered treatment for my binge eating disorder, I couldn’t even acknowledge my underlying anorexic and orthorexic tendencies. I freely admitted to my use of disordered overeating and binge behaviors. This history of using food to numb and avoid strong emotions, discomfort, or pain was a maladaptive coping mechanism that traced back into my childhood. However, I refused to allow that my actual eating disorder began as a predominantly restrictive problem. My adamant denial was so powerful that I actually convinced myself that my nutrition was balanced and adequate when I wasn’t actively binging. (FALSE!) Though I was deeply ashamed of the label “binge eater,” it was easier to identify with that diagnosis than to face the truth that my restriction, over-exercise, and weight-loss obsession was dangerous, unhealthy, and unsustainable. The fear of relinquishing control over my food choices and the threat of the weight gain that might result were unbearable.

Withholding information and bending facts in an effort to create reality as I desired it to exist and my attempts to manipulate the outcome of my treatment only resulted in setbacks, frustration, and despair. As I experienced failure after failure, I begrudgingly revealed the full depth of my disorder. I reluctantly pulled at the threads of my story, picking apart one strand at a time.  Finally, eight months after being diagnosed with BED and a month after my discharge from partial hospitalization, my nutritionist was able to weave the complete tapestry together. She was the first to verbalize what I intrinsically knew to be true about my eating. My binging did not exist in isolation. I was also a restrictive eater with underlying orthorexia.

My task is now to unwind the tight tangle of fear, limitation, avoidance, and control. Undoing the knot takes place even more gradually and inconspicuously than the act of snarling it up. Perhaps the subtlety of the process is itself a marker of my improvement. The fact that sampling a “new” food does not always involve a climactic battle against apprehension and anxiety is a victory. This is a pretty stark contrast to last Fourth of July, when staring down a table of make-your-own ice cream sundae fixings filled me with so much panic that I nearly passed out. More recently, I am observing that when I spot a different or novel food, I may just eat it. Whether I am motivated by hunger and a lack of other choices, or by curiosity, or both, the result is the same.

At a Memorial Day cookout with friends back home, both need and intrigue were factors when, rather unceremoniously, I reached for a cheeseburger. Ok, ok. It wasn’t really a cheeseburger. A friend was grilling sliders, those smaller medallions of ground beef, which he topped off with a slice of cheddar folded into quarters. There was no flourish, and hardly anyone noticed when I wandered into the kitchen, observed that these miniature beef patties were my only protein option of the evening, and placed one on my plate (without a bun or condiments). Even I barely registered that this was an unprecedented and unusual action for me. It was only my friend’s half-startled, somewhat awkward, but abundantly considerate and compassionate comment, “There’s more food in the fridge if you need anything else,” which triggered my introspection. Why would I need anything else? I wondered. Why is he concerned? It took a few minutes before it dawned on me… It wasn’t long ago that I DID need my own special meal EVERY time we ate together.

There are still many occasions when I opt for a peanut butter sandwich tucked into my purse instead of lunch at a restaurant when I’m on the go, but I don’t view this as a symptom of my orthorexia. Though my goal is to loosen my restriction, I am still allowed to be health-conscious (and budget-conscious) in my choices. The reality is that I am much more comfortable eating a wider variety of foods when the occasion arises, and my trepidation and self-consciousness about eating in front of others is also improving. Last June, I left the church picnic after 15 minutes, because I couldn’t bring myself to eat a hamburger, and because I was so insecure about not knowing anyone with whom to socialize or talk. A few weeks ago, I attended the same annual picnic, and passed a delightful afternoon, chatting and eating until the cleanup crew began to pack their gear away. I won’t be making hamburgers and cheeseburgers a staple of my regular diet, but I I continue to add experience after experience that reinforces this truth – there is more to food than what I stare at on my plate. This is what nourishes and sustains me – the people I love, in the places close to my heart.

Picnic
These smiling people seem to be onto something. Maybe it’s not about the food. Maybe it’s about the company. “Picnic, circa 1960s,” © Seattle Municipal Archives, ca. 1962. CC BY 2.0. (license)

The Perennial Party Problem

Featured Image: “Eyjafjallajökull Eruption,” © Söring, May 2010. CC BY-NC 2.0.

As I begin to type, I’m sitting in my office, back arched away from my desk chair, shoulders pulled angrily up to my ears, forehead creased, mouth taught and frowning. There are five minutes until I need to walk across the hall for the daily 9am meeting, but my fingers are slamming the keys. If I can just put a few words on the page, maybe the hostility that’s seething inside of me won’t continue to consume me like a pyroclastic cloud, burning me up from the inside-out.

WHY am I so upset? What exactly is it that is compelling me to both lash out and to self-destruct. I can feel the forces of my anger directed simultaneously outward and inward. I want to scream at my co-workers, then grasp the mug that sits between me and the keyboard, in which steeps my steaming green tea, usually such a tranquil focal point, and fling it at the wall. I imagine the ceramic shattering into huge chunks and bits of powder with a satisfying jolt and crash followed by a tinkling rain. I want to punish myself. What’s going on? I realize that this reaction, now probably temporary, is the state that I once lived in nearly every day. Today, just under the surface, if I peel back a hastily applied, too-shiny shellac that barely obscures all my thoughts and feelings, there is a running list of my mistakes. Screw the Powerball. I will put my money on the underlying message that is playing on the tape reel in my head. Consciously, I’m deaf to it right now, but if I stop long enough to listen, I bet I will discover it repeating some version of, “I suck,” right now.

Ok. Meeting time. Good vent.

Narrow Passage
Narrow Passage,” © Marc Soller, Feb 2010. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

There’s something about the combination of sitting in a quiet meeting room, meditating on my breath and the tone of the voices filling the air, a blank page, and Yo-Yo Ma that is intensely therapeutic. Here it goes… Time to scrape at the layers.

Before I begin to write, I want to take a moment to be grateful. I’m grateful for a private office, where I can close my door, pump up the volume of Ma’s sweet sounding cello, and pause. I am grateful that I work in a place where this moment of introspection is possible. It doesn’t happen every day, but more often than not, if I need a bit of time for reflection, I can find the space. I know that I will be much more effective (and much more pleasant) if I can process whatever is going on between my heart and my head in this moment. If I continue to press on, then I am at risk of acting out. I’m grateful for this insight.

Getting down to the matter at hand, here is how I’m feeling. Defensive. Angry. Vulnerable. Not in control.

Exposed. Imprisoned. Captive. Trapped. Like a caged animal, I am ready to scratch the eyes out of anyone who comes near me or chew off my own arm to get away.

There is an obstacle in my immediate future that I cannot escape. Two obstacles, actually. Two work parties. On Thursday, some of my co-workers are throwing a “diaper party,” which is apparently an alternative to a baby shower, except all the gifts are diapers of various types and sizes, for one of our officemates. His wife is expecting their first child later this month, and I get it. A baby shower for a close colleague is one of those events like a birthday or Christmas, and while I’m not excited about navigating the food situation at work, I am supportive of the occasion and am excited for my friend. I’m not burning up over the diaper party.

But I am reeling about the barbecue banquet that is being planned for the following week. As a reward for winning the inter-office holiday decorating competition, our department chair is throwing us a celebratory lunch. The group-wide email soliciting input about date and type of food to serve is currently circulating through the “reply-all” channels.

Why are we so uncreative as a society that we continue to use food as both reward and punishment? Why can’t we be rewarded with a few hours off to go bowling as a team (there’s an alley close to our office), or brainstorm some other fun activity that we might all enjoy? I am not eager to attend another office lunch where my colleagues can demonstrate their individualized disordered eating patterns (either binging or restricting), while seeking external validation in the form of baiting others with comments about the new diet they plan on starting, their juice cleanse, new work-out routine, or, worse, observations about what other people are eating, how others look, or how much others exercise. I am often the object of many of these “others” comments. So… yeah. I tend to loathe forced socialization with my co-workers, and I especially abhor mandatory fun with food. Outside of these events and these conversations, my colleagues are wonderful, amazing, astounding people. They are kind, generous, well-meaning, funny, intelligent… I can go on and on. I even enjoy getting together with them outside of the office from time to time. Oblige me to sit in a windowless conference room with them and eat, though, and they are the enemy.

The seething is already starting to recede. I realize that I have a choice – continue along this path of AVERSION and WILLFULNESS, or search for an alternative way. What is the alternative? Is there more than one other choice?

Step one – Recognize that I am experiencing a strong emotional reaction. Identify when I am triggered.

Check. Definitely, definitely check.

Step two – Explore.

Well… isn’t that what I’m essentially doing right now? Here I am, sharing my explorations with the world, if the world cares to read them. It feels like groping through a bucket of opaque bile, searching for a nugget of gold.

Step three – Choose differently.

Crater Lake
Crater Lake,” © Andy Spearing, Aug 2008. CC BY 2.0.

Ugh. This is the hard part. My co-workers are good people. They are not malicious. They are caring, thoughtful, loving, and compassionate. From the number of emails flooding my inbox, I can tell that they are very excited for this celebratory barbecue lunch. They are almost more excited to join together for a few hours of fast-food pulled pork than they were for their festive “Star Wars Christmas” scheme, which was, believe me, quite elaborate. They deserve this win. This party isn’t about me, and it isn’t about my eating disorder. It isn’t personal. I still take issue with the “food as reward” approach, but my perspective and background on that matter is unique.

What am I going to do? Well, I am going to need to be OK with the uncertainty of not knowing what will happen or how I will react on the actual day of the lunch.

In the meantime, I dug deep (as Brené Brown might say), and instead of lashing out in bitterness and resentment, I called upon humor. Gratefully, it was accessible in my hour of need. My supervisor and I were joking about the terrible road conditions on the drive into work this morning (it was snowing pretty heavily during the AM commute), and I noticed that our banter was actually discharging some of my pent-up aggression. I felt the tension in my body slackening. Interesting, I thought. John knows about my history of an eating disorder, so without too much planning, I dove in. “Hey,” I started jovially, “I conscientiously object to using food as a reward. I vote that you guys throw your party on Tuesday so that I won’t be here and I won’t have to go.” Tuesday was one of the days initially proposed, and it also happened to be the afternoon of my weekly, standing appointment with my therapist. My words were light and my face was laughing, but my meaning was serious.

He smiled thoughtfully, gazing up and to the right in that honest, innocent way that people do when they are contemplating. “Oh yeah, I guess it is using food as a reward,” reflected the father of five. “Ok!” he agreed with a grin.

From the email traffic, it seems that everyone else is onboard with the plan for Tuesday, and some of my distress is alleviated. I am taking a (tiny) stand on an issue that is important to my values, without making too much of a fuss, and I am confident that I will navigate next Tuesday skillfully. In the meantime, I will keep trying to explore as I keep trying to cultivate ACCEPTANCE, WILLINGNESS, and COMPASSION, for myself and others.

Crater Lake OR
Crater Lake, OR” © Jonathan Miske, Aug 2014. CC BY-SA 2.0.

The Day the Wall Came Down

Featured Image:  “Remains of the Berlin Wall,” by Joe deSousa, Jul 2012. Public domain, CC0 1.0.

*Note to the reader: Names have been changed. Despite the allusion to the contrary below, I am not, in fact, on a first name basis with my boss.

The Scene: A non-descript hallway in a non-descript office building. Poorly engineered overhead lighting does little to improve the appearance of the grayish, scuffed walls and beige, linoleum tile floor. Lulu exits the women’s restroom, and a slight man of about 45, with thinning brown hair and a tanned, lined face approaches from behind.

Michael*: Hey! I was just on my way to see you in your office. (A subtle emphasis is placed on the words, “in your office.” It is almost imperceptible.)

Lulu: (Thinking to self: “This can’t be anything good. Why does he need to talk to me in my office? Ok, wait, it doesn’t necessarily have to be bad. I will try to avoid jumping to conclusions.” She laughs nervously.) Oh, really?

Together, they walk toward another hallway, which intersects the first at a right angle, and Lulu opens a heavy, unmarked door. Michael follows behind as Lulu passes into a wider office space filled with cubicles. They pass a row of cubicles,  toward another open door. Warmer, welcoming light streams from the entryway. As they approach, the soft, muted tones of Enya can be heard playing in the background.

Michael: Yeah, you know. It’s been awhile since I talked to you!

Lulu: Perplexed. Sounding innocent. Since Friday?

Michael: Yeah, well, you know. Three days! What’s been going on? That’s nice music!

Lulu: (Trying to hide embarrassment that she listens to Enya in her office. Makes a soft, chuckling, choking sound.) Yeah, it’s my after lunch, chill-out music. Um, things are pretty much the same.

They cross the threshold into Lulu’s office, which is richly decorated with a Tiffany lamp and an area rug patterned in gray and gold that complements the tones in the glass. An elegant table runner drapes over the top of a low bookshelf, forming a perfect surface for a rose-colored, ceramic pot of pink flowers, a decorative teacup, and a picture frame. A plaque that reads, “Believe – v. to have confidence or faith in the truth of,” sits next to the pot. A map of the world hangs on the wall above, and the remaining walls are covered in diplomas and certificates framed in heavy, dark wood. Lulu quickly maneuvers behind the desk and propels herself into the security of her familiar chair, while Michael more cautiously seats himself in a straight-backed chair opposite her. Michael leans back, picks up one foot, and places it on the other knee, allowing his leg to flop to the side casually. Lulu props her elbows on her armrests and tents her hands under her chin, lips pinched, leaning forward.

Michael: So, I was just wondering, you know, if it’s not too much to ask, and only if you’re comfortable, I don’t want to put you on the spot or anything, but would you tell me what it’s like to have an eating disorder, you know, from your personal experience. (He drags out the world “personal” emphatically.)

Pause….

Michael: You know, if you’re comfortable. I don’t want to put you on the spot or anything. I just, I mean, you’re the only person I ever met with an eating disorder. I mean… what’s it LIKE?

Pause…

Lulu: (Thinking to self: “WHAT… THE… … … … ?”)

Pause…

Lulu: (Thinking to self: “Did the director of my division seriously just ask me to share my personal experience with binge eating disorder? Um… How is this going to factor into my performance stratification?”) Um. What?

Michael: You know, you just seem so open, otherwise I wouldn’t ask. You just seem like such an open person. (He repeatedly stresses the word “open.”)

Lulu: (Thinking to self: “Well, he certainly has guts… Is my mouth hanging open? I think my mouth is hanging open.”)

Michael: You know, we were talking last week, and I realized that I don’t really know anything about eating disorders. I mean, I’d like to understand better what it’s like for you.

Lulu: (Thinking to self: “Geez. Well, I’m the one who is always saying that I want to increase awareness and break down stigma… I just didn’t think it would be with the head of my division.”) Well… what do you want to know?

Untitled,” © Kyle Cheung, June 2011. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Can you imagine my shock, mingled with horror, mingled with speechlessness, when the above occurred just before Halloween? We ended up speaking for an hour! Historically, my division chief and I did not have the most open relationship, to use his adjective. It wasn’t as though I thought that he meant me any harm. I believed him to be very well meaning, but I also found interacting with him feel forced and awkward. However, our mutual courage to be a little bit vulnerable might just be leading us both to an improved understanding, to borrow from one of my favorite authors/researchers/storytellers, Brené Brown.

On the subject of Brené Brown… as my division chief and I were chatting again last week (about the dicey topic of my future professional plans – dicey because I don’t have any at the present moment, which is not something I am eager to confess to my career-focused boss), he interjected with, “Hey, do you like TED talks? Have you seen these TED talks by this woman Brené Brown on shame and vulnerability?”

My reaction was essentially to think, “How the fudge do you know about Brené Brown?” Except I didn’t think the word, “fudge.” Fortunately, what actually came out of my mouth was something to the effect of, “I would pretty much attribute my success in recovery to discovering her work. They made us watch her video on vulnerability, and then I read her book, The Gifts of Imperfection while I was at Walden, and it was a definite turning point.” I didn’t go into how research demonstrates that it is critical in establishing and sustaining eating disorder recovery for a sufferer to be able to learn self-compassion. We needed something to talk about the next time we chat! But, prior to Brené Brown, I didn’t know what vulnerability, shame, and self-compassion meant. (There are more resources about self-compassion and ED recovery on my favorites page).

I’m pretty sure Michael didn’t realize just how much of a compliment he was paying me when he told me that I seemed to practice the appropriate degree of vulnerability that Dr. Brown discussed during her TED talk. He confessed that, despite watching the videos several times, he struggled to fully understand exactly how and why vulnerability was necessary for establishing human connection, and why connection was necessary for leading a wholehearted life (he admitted that he was stuck on the “necessary” bit). “Would you mind going over them with me?” he asked. “I think I can find the transcripts online,” he continued. “It might be helpful if I could highlight them, and I could write down some questions. I think I would understand it better if I could discuss it with you.”

The transcripts arrived in my email inbox the next day. I’m looking forward to our next conversation.

"Kaffee für zwei," © Marco Huber, Aug 2013. CC BY-ND 2.0.
Kaffee für zwei,” © Marco Huber, Aug 2013. CC BY-ND 2.0.

Unknowing

Featured Image: “Silence,” © Ilya Dobrych, Apr 2009. CC-BY-SA 2.0.

Flying makes me anxious. It doesn’t make me anxious because I’m afraid of accidents or heights or the recirculating germs of strangers in a tiny, enclosed space. Rather, it makes me anxious because it is a situation that I don’t control. I am at the whim of the TSA employee, the gate attendant, the pilots, the flight attendants, and blind chance. Although I try my best to choose a take-off time that best suits me, I can’t predict the medical emergency on the inbound plane that will delay us by three hours, causing me to arrive home at 1:30 am. I am ALL ABOUT CONTROL. My eating disorder manifested at a time when my life was otherwise chaotic in the extreme due to numerous factors outside of my control. The more out-of-control my environment became, the more rigid and fixated I became with my eating, and so forth. Treatment allows me clearer insight into my control issues, and now I face them head-on rather than coping with my distress by engaging in self-destructive habits. I try to identify and name my emotions. Anxiety. Fear. Panic. What am I telling myself that is making me feel this way? Is it true? Is it helpful? Sometimes my reasonable mind can untwist my thinking enough to take the edge off those emotions. Inch by inch, it’s getting easier, but sometimes, it’s still a take-no-prisoners, guerrilla war. This is the backdrop of my story.

But first, another bit of background. It’s a universal reality that people use careless words, make stupid comments, and are occasionally cruel. I am fully guilty of this, myself, and it probably happens on a daily basis more often than I am even aware of, much to my sorrow. I would like to think that it usually comes from a well-meaning place or, at worst, results from my ignorance. One of the first lessons that I learned in Emotional Regulation 101 was that I cannot control what other people say to me or how they behave, but I can control what I tell myself about their language and actions and how I choose to respond. It wasn’t an easy lesson, and it is one that requires continual practice. I was helped by another girl that I met in treatment who, in her lifelong struggle against anorexia, stumbled upon what she called “THE THREE U’S.” They are as follows: UNKNOWING, UNEDUCATED, and UNCARING (or unkind). “When people say dumb s*&t to me or I start getting pissed about something someone is doing, I ask myself, ‘Is this person unknowing, uneducated, or uncaring?’” she would explain. “Does this person not know that I have an eating disorder and that their words are potentially very hurtful or triggering? Is this person uneducated about eating disorders? Does she think that she’s being empathetic and insightful, when really she is unintentionally saying or doing something really upsetting or hurtful?” Fortunately, in my personal experience, it’s rather rare that I encounter someone who is truly uncaring and is motivated by anger or spite, who means to cause me suffering or to make me feel pain.

"Open Book," © Honou, Oct 2008. CC-BY-2.0.
Open Book,” © Honou, Oct 2008. CC-BY-2.0.

At last, onto the story! It was a sunny, warm, Sunday afternoon, and I was sitting in the terminal at Baltimore-Washington airport awaiting the announcement to board my connecting flight back to Vanillasville. My weekend trip home to the Northeast was a wonderful respite from work and the isolated otherness of my routine, eastern Midwest life. Already, the travel back to Vanillasville was progressing more smoothly than my journey home. No delays. No unexpected gate changes. Just a bit of turbulence during the first leg. My ticket placed me in one of the first boarding groups, and I was delighted to find abundant bin space as I made my way onto the plane. Feeling rested, relatively safe, and confident in my ability to adhere to my meal plan under the present circumstances, I was in a pretty positive and optimistic mood. I settled into my aisle seat near the front of the plane, tucked my carry-on securely above me and my shoulder bag under the seat in front of me, and prepared for the short, hour-long jaunt that would land me back in familiar (i.e., controllable) territory. There weren’t many unpredictable variables left during this trip to heighten my vigilance.

Beside me, another woman, slightly younger than me, buckled herself into the center seat, and to her left, a middle-aged woman of about fifty found her place, shifting uncomfortably until the flight attendant subtly passed her a seatbelt extender. I smiled and said, “Hi,” to both of them, as I usually do whenever I fly. I’m not the type of person who relishes launching into a deep conversation with a complete stranger who I will be unable to escape from for the next several hours, but I like to smile, make eye contact, and offer a friendly greeting. It sort of gives me a bit of a warm fuzzy on the inside while allowing me to protect my privacy. My row-mates were of other minds on this particular Sunday afternoon, apparently. It didn’t happen all at once. It began with an innocent question from the woman nearest the window to the one in the middle, but in short order, the conversation was underway, and I found myself drawn into it. Dialectically, I decided to use my skills, to make myself fully mindful of the people I was traveling with, and to engage them, giving myself to listening and taking in their words, their gestures, their expressions. I called upon all my mindfulness skills to notice my own reactions, not only mental but also physical and emotional. The woman near the window was returning from a trip to Texas with her daughter and then woman in middle was on her way to a job interview. She was a very young physician, still in training, and after talking a bit about her work, the joys and frustrations of her life as a medical resident, the conversation somehow devolved into her personal opinions about the obesity epidemic in America. She spoke as though she possessed unique insight, as an enlightened and compassionate healthcare provider, but from my perspective, she sounded, quite frankly, rather uneducated on the subject. She was also unknowing of my own education and experience, background, and personal stake in the topic. How could she know how deeply and personally I am affected by the topic when I look, for all appearances, like a completely healthy, slender, fit woman? Why would she ever suspect me of having an eating disorder, let alone BINGE eating disorder? Who would think that my weight and my eating is such a source of pain and SHAME for me? She never seemed to take into consideration how what she was saying was affecting our third companion, and I wondered at the depth and breadth of thoughts and emotions hidden behind the kind, placid face of the woman near the window, who could not hide her obesity. Her only verbal response was to blame her weight problems entirely on genetics. I attempted to interject with a plea for a deeper understanding of the role that socioeconomics, family systems, culture, learned behaviors, and mental health all factor into the complicated and multifaceted issues of weight, nutrition, and health, but I was met with blank stares.

"Ball," © Riley Kaminer, Jan 2009. CC-BY-2.0.
Ball,” © Riley Kaminer, Jan 2009. CC-BY-2.0.

It was discouraging to be confronted with cultural ignorance toward weight stigma, eating issues, and health in general, but especially mental health, on a face-to-face, personal level. Even recounting the conversation in my mind to write about these events for this blog post is stirring all sorts of distress, once more. It feels like that familiar, tight, ball of rubber bands in my chest, just behind my sternum, ready to pop and shoot colorful bands all across the room. It’s one thing to read ill-informed articles in the media, to watch stereotypes portrayed on TV, or to see yet another exploitative marketing strategy that reinforces disordered eating behaviors and unrealistic, unattainable appearance and lifestyle standards. I sat mostly silent for the duration of the flight, occasionally speaking when I thought I could insert a statement that might be heard by my fellow travelers with an open heart and mind without exposing myself. It felt disingenuous. What could I do? What would you have done?

The Potluck Lot

One of the recurrent themes that I seem to return to with great frequency is my aversion to the preponderance of food in my workplace. I feel as though I live in a varying state of dudgeon over what I interpret as the unconscious perpetuation by those around me of the insidious and reprehensibly unhealthy values surrounding food, exercise, and body image that are so deeply ingrained in our culture. My righteous indignation stirs into a fiery fervor whenever the “Naughty or Nice Cart” rolls through my hallway. I feel like a zealot on a one-woman crusade against the political, media, and industry-fueled machine that drives perversions of what is considered “healthy” in our society. Sometimes, I wish that I could just shout, “Wake up! Wake up, people! Don’t you realize what is going on here?!” After so much cognitive behavioral work, so much practicing at identifying my distorted, all-or-nothing, black-and-white thoughts and then replacing those thoughts with more reasonable, appropriate, rational versions, I might be better at recognizing the pattern of extremism and alarm underlying my ruminations.

Yet, I still find myself sucked into a vortex of vilification and catastrophization on a not-irregular frequency. Why is it so difficult to just LET GO. Is the situation as tectonic as I paint it through my choice of language and the story that I construct in my mind? I am so sensitized to these issues due to my personal history that it is impossible for me to approach the problem from an unbiased, objective perspective. A frequent topic of conversation at my weekly therapy appointments is trying to decide just when to speak up and when to simply ACCEPT that I do not control the actions, opinions, behaviors, or beliefs of others. Can I acknowledge that, though I have a unique insight, I am not an expert, and I am not always right? Can I “choose my battles,” so to speak? Can I WILLINGLY tolerate the off-hand comments, insensitive remarks, and the possibly uneducated or uninformed, but not necessarily ill-intentioned, activities around me? I CAN… but it takes practice. And more practice. And more practice. And more and more and more and more practice.

My latest distress revolved around an office potluck-staff meeting. I wanted to characterize my workplace as evil and my co-workers as criminal because we must hold a potluck at every quarterly staff meeting… However, I ruefully acquiesced that the focus on food did not, of itself, make the environment hellish or the people wicked. In fact, I admitted to myself, a shared meal can be a very healthy activity! It builds bonds of connection and can be an expression of love, friendship, and joy. Unfortunately, in my personal experience as someone with binge eating disorder, these large-scale potlucks are too often derailed by eating just for the physical pleasure of consuming food, which shortly loses its pleasing effect. The sanctity of the meal is lost. The gratitude for nourishment and fellowship and the serenity that would follow from that sense of fulfillment erodes away when satiety is exceeded, the sugar crash sets in, and I begin lambasting myself for being such a fat, stupid, worthless cow in the privacy of my inner mind. I can’t speak for others, but I wonder if this is not a somewhat shared experience. Do we joke about how overly stuffed we are, the number of calories we just consumed, how many hours at the gym it will take to burn off our excesses, or the number of pounds we just gained in order to normalize, rationalize, and justify? Again, how can I expect to be objective? Sometimes, it seems that attention is purposely diverted to others in a scapegoating fashion. At the last office potluck-staff meeting, I listened in shocked horror as two colleagues made some of the most demeaning, dehumanizing “fat jokes” I could recall hearing since riding the school bus as a teenager. When I objected, one of the men laughed and stated, “It’s OK, because they’re fat. They deserve it. If they didn’t want to be made fun of, they wouldn’t be fat.” Appalled, I decided this was one of those situations I wasn’t going to be able to change (though I did speak to the supervisor later about the inappropriateness of those comments).

Perhaps it was this past experience that aroused so much discomfort and resentment in me as the day of the potluck approached. Recollections of previous struggles at similar office events were also, undoubtedly, contributing factors. Would this potluck-staff meeting be anything like those affairs? When I considered the looming occasion, words such as “awful,” “horrible,” “sucks,” “crap,” “problem,” “failure,” and “disaster,” sprang forward. Alternatives such as, “less than ideal,” “it is what it is,” “imperfect,” “opportunity,” “challenge,” “doable,” “growth,” and “surmountable,” were much less accessible to me. When I was able to string together a “rational response” to a doomful prediction, the thought was ephemeral, vaporizing almost as soon as it was conceptualized, while my negativity lingered.

On the day of the potluck, I summoned my courage and my coping skills. It wasn’t graceful. I always have this image of myself navigating distressing situations with perfect equanimity. Of course, using that ideal as my standard, I felt shamefully dejected. Fortunately, the wonderful supports to whom I reached out possessed the clarity and insight to point out that such a model is entirely unrealistic, and I was able to listen. Once I started admitting my small successes, it became increasingly easier to see the multitude of ways in which I did remarkably well under less than ideal circumstances that were beyond my control. My brain is expertly trained to instantly find the fault, the critique, the thing to improve upon. What I discovered following the potluck, or perhaps just stumbled upon again, is the need to preferentially look for my positives. My good qualities. My strengths.

So… these are my goals today. 1) Practice willing acceptance. Again. And again. And again. 2) Look for my positives. I hope you all can see your positives today, too!

"Hawaiian Sunrise 09," by Tamugreg, [Public Domain], May 2009. Wikimedia Commons.
“Hawaiian Sunrise 09,” by Tamugreg, [Public Domain], May 2009. Wikimedia Commons.
Featured Image Credit: “Ceremonial,” © NAEINSUN, CC-BY-SA 3.0, Feb 2008. Wikimedia Commons.

Shame Doesn’t Lead to Change

Today, I’m upset about some joking that I overheard at the expense of “others.” Some people at work were making cruel “fat jokes,” and if that weren’t bad enough, they were saying these awful words within earshot of some very wonderful, lovely colleagues who happen to be struggling with weight and body issues at the moment. When will we all learn that we don’t motivate ourselves or the people we care about (or even don’t care about!) to change by making them feel bad about themselves? Martin Luther King, Jr. phrased it much more eloquently than I can when he said,

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

As LeVar Burton used to tell children on the television show Reading Rainbow, “Don’t just take my word for it…” Below is an NBC News piece by Melissa Dahl that summarizes an article published in the scientific journal PLoS ONE in 2013.  The results demonstrated that not only was size discrimination ineffective at promoting weight loss, it actually led to weight gain. Another study from University College London in 2014 revealed the same pattern. The second link leads to a Washington Post article describing those findings.

http://www.nbcnews.com/health/fat-shaming-actually-increases-risk-becoming-or-staying-obese-new-8C10751491

http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/to-your-health/wp/2014/09/11/fat-shaming-doesnt-work-a-new-study-says/

The following is of my favorite Brené Brown quotes, which reminds me that I am constantly in need of practice when it comes to humility and empathy…

The biggest potential for helping us overcome shame is this: We are “those people.” The truth is…we are the others. Most of us are one paycheck, one divorce, one drug-addicted kid, one mental health illness, one sexual assault, one drinking binge, one night of unprotected sex, or one affair away from being “those people…”1

Fat jokes are a mechanism of shame that is often, inexplicably, socially condoned. This blog post is my plea to whoever reads it that we stop using these criticisms to undercut ourselves and others. I am just as guilty of using shame as anyone else in the world. I use it in a misguided attempt to impel myself toward self-improvement (especially when it comes to matters of body image and professional performance), and sometimes, it just slips right out in conversation or in my body language. I wish I could suck it back in, reverse time, swallow my words and my facial expressions… but that’s not the way it works. The only way to move forward, at least that I am finding, is to ask for forgiveness, admit my mistakes and my vulnerability, acknowledge my weaknesses, and love myself anyway. When I can do that, then I can love the equally imperfect people around me, and together, maybe we can all move toward a brighter future.

I owe a lot of what I’m learning on this topic to my wonderful therapist and nutritionist, the amazingly strong, beautifully vulnerable people in my therapy, groups, and the resources listed on my “Favorites” page. Check it out, maybe find a reason to forgive yourself for a past mistake or to celebrate a current accomplishment, and perhaps find a way to encourage someone else. Let me know what you think!

  1. Cover photo credit: “Cygnes et cygneaux,” by 20100, May 2007. [Public Domain] Wikimedia Commons.
  2. Brown B. (2007) I thought it was just me (but it isn’t):  Making the journey from “what will people think? to “I am enough. New York:  Gotham Books.

Finding My Own Festivity

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e9/The_autumn_leaves_%28305979423%29.jpg

There is no need for air conditioning at night lately. If I leave just a half-opened window in the bedroom, I find myself pulling the comforter snuggly around my chin sometime near 3 am. In the mornings, the chilly air propels me toward the closet for a sweater as I set the kettle on the stovetop for my ritual cup of tea. As I sip the steaming liquid, the aromatic vapor wafting pleasantly around the tip of my nose, I can hear the bleating, rather obnoxious squawks of Canadian geese passing overhead as they progress to their winter habitats. The humid, stifling heat of summer is giving way to drier, crisper air. I can feel the change on the breeze that rustles the leaves, which are showing just the faintest hints of brown shrivel at their edges, a flash of orange here or there, and a rare, prematurely stark branch. I’m impatiently awaiting the arrival of chrysanthemums at the garden center next to the library. Autumn is coming.

Do you know what Autumn means in Vanillaville, East Midwest, USA? It means that festival season is upon us. A few weeks ago, there was the Celtic Festival, followed by the Jazz Festival and the Sweet Corn Festival. Then, the area hosted Bacon Fest and Germanfest. The agenda for next weekend includes the Music and Arts Festival, Lebanese Festival, and AleFest. The weekend after Labor Day will see the Popcorn Festival and the Greek Festival come to town. Other events on the horizon include the Apple Festival, because it really wouldn’t be fall without one, but also the Renaissance Festival, Oktoberfest, Buttercream Festival, Cyclops Fest, Pork Festival, Mum Festival, Pretzel Festival, and Sauerkraut Festival (I kid you not)… among many others.

Is it a cultural thing, or an eating disorder specific thing? Because I just don’t get it. Growing up in New England, we didn’t even have counties, let alone county fairs. The only benefit to knowing what county I lived in was being able to pick my geographic location out of a weather alert map at the bottom of the TV screen during an emergency warning broadcast. There certainly weren’t multiple festivals happening every weekend.

For the first several years that I lived in Vanillaville, I thought that there was something really wrong with me. Clearly, festivals were fun. It seemed obvious and implicit in the word itself. \‘fes-tə-vəl\ (noun): “a time of celebration…” “gaiety, conviviality.” Origin: Middle English, from Anglo-French, from Latin festivus festive.1 During my first August in Vanillaville, as my eating disorder was just emerging, I ventured to the Germanfest with a friend. It was a nifty experience for about forty-five minutes. There was live music, and women dressed in dirndls sold homemade tchotchkes while beer flowed liberally beneath a giant, white tent. We ate overcooked schnitzel and spätzle, or rather he ate while I anxiously nibbled and berated myself for overindulging until my heart was beating faster than the wings of a hummingbird and I was near-tears with the deluge of panicked thoughts I managed to stir up in myself at the certainty that I was assuredly going to become fat from this single chicken patty. We perused the rows of ceramic steins and the tables laid out with keychains and license plate holders emblazoned with the German flag, and when we were bored we drove home. That was it? I thought. Maybe we simply didn’t catch it at the right time. Perhaps we missed the best of the activity. So, a couple of years later, when some friends of mine wanted to scope out the Sauerkraut Festival, I decided to tag along. The novelty of a celebration dedicated to sauerkraut that made the thirty minute drive out into the rural area surrounding the “city” seem worth the investment of time and gas money. If nothing else, I would be able to spend an afternoon in the company of my friends. By that point in my life’s history, my eating disorder was significant enough that I was socially isolating out of fear and anxiety surrounding food and the consumption of it, so a chance to be in the company of peers was both terrifying but also longed for desperately. However, it would not be incorrect to surmise that I wasn’t planning on eating anything at this carnival of kraut.

Unfortunately, it rained on the afternoon in question. We piled into Brad and Jenny’s fuel efficient, charcoal gray Camry and made our way past corn fields and cow pastures until we arrived in the tiny downtown that was transformed for the weekend with banners, streamers, yellow police tape and orange cones, folding tables, tarps, and tents. It was looking inhospitable and sad, splashed with mud, as bedraggled volunteers manned booths under a damp sky. A steady drizzle began just as we departed the car. We circled the tract around all of the tables, past the crafters and the cooks. Once Brad, Jenny, and our friend Monica were satisfied that they picked out the best-looking brats of all the possible options, they shelled out a few dollars, and we huddled under the eve of the only permanently standing building nearby while they scarfed down sausages, pretzel rolls, and Cokes. With their appetites mollified, and my curiosity quelled, we picked our way past puddles back to the Camry and began the trek home.

Last autumn, I gave the festival circuit one last chance at redemption. On a stunningly beautiful, warm, blue-sky Sunday afternoon, I journeyed over winding roads to the much-acclaimed Apple Festival, held in the historic area of a nearby town that is also home to the state’s oldest hotel, as well as a real, working coal-powered locomotive. This is going to be fun! I told myself. The weather was perfect, I was gaining insight into my eating disorder, and apples were a relatively safe food for me. I ate one every day. When I arrived, the place was flooded with cars and people. Clearly, it was a popular event. Two of the downtown streets were blocked to traffic, with booths set up along both sides. I merged with the flow of bodies spilling into the festival area with eager excitement and anticipation. Gradually, I picked my way from one temporary stall to another. Knitted scarves, homemade soaps, beaded jewelry… more homemade soaps, etched wood signs… more homemade soaps… more knitted scarves… apple tarts, apple fritters, apple crisp, apple pie, caramel apples, chocolate-dipped apples, candied apples, local honey, fried dough, more caramel apples, more fried dough… my interest began to wane, my feet began to ache. All around me, people were devouring baked potatoes loaded with bacon, sour cream, and cheese, nachos, turkey legs, and sugared apple concoctions of all varieties. Under the hot sun, sweat beaded on my forehead, and as I slid into disappointment and depression, my anxiety began its quick crescendo. I didn’t yet possess the skills to help me diffuse the situation. Distress tolerance was a term that was not in my lexicon.

Admittedly, my exposure to festivals is limited. I went to the Renaissance Festival one year, and when I was living in DC, I attended the Montgomery County Fair. They all seem to follow a basic recipe, however. As I wrote when I began, maybe it’s my eating disorder or maybe it’s the fact that I didn’t grow up going to festivals with my family and friends, or maybe it’s a combination of both… but I it doesn’t matter all that much. They are fun for some people, but they just aren’t for me, and I’m finally comfortable saying, “There’s nothing wrong with me because I don’t find festivals entertaining! Just because I think they are uninteresting doesn’t make me a boring, antisocial, cranky person! I find my fun in other ways!” It’s exciting to finally feel comfortable and confident enough with myself that I’m not trying to become someone I’m not, and I can work on becoming the person I am! This weekend, while people were flocking to AleFest (I’m sure it was a blast for those who love ale and fests), I drove to the Big City, about an hour away.  Some friends and I bought tickets for a historic walking tour of one of the old neighborhoods and then sat down to dinner at a cute, Belgian café. That might sound boring to some, but it was thrilling for me! Step by step, bit by bit, I’m learning who I am, and trying to love her…

“All is Safely Gathered In,” © Jonathan Billinger, Oct 2009, CC-BY-SA 2.0. Wikimedia Commons.
  1. Merriam-Webster Dictionary © 2015.
  2. Featured image credit:  “The Autumn Leaves,” © Darwin Bell, Nov 2006, CC-SA-BY 2.0. Wikimedia Commons.