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

A Message to Myself Today

Featured Image: “Moonrise,” © Brian (own work), April 2012. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

“In the course of a lifetime, what does it matter?”

~ Sharon Creech, Walk Two Moons

When I read this book, I was probably about twelve, and I forgot the majority of the plot long ago. But, when I was at Walden, I was reminded of these words by another patient. It was one of the quotations that helped keep her afloat during her intense battle against anorexia.

While I still don’t remember much about the story, I now carry this single sentence in my heart. It is slipping back into my consciousness today, as I return to work after a restful week of visiting family. Though there is much catching up to do, I am able to fluidly transition from one task to the next, without taking myself or the demands of my job and my day-to-day life too seriously. “How long will it be before I start growing anxious and frustrated again?” I wonder. “How long will it be before I start telling myself that all of the too-many-things I squeeze into my schedule are necessary?”

Last night, as I was about to climb into bed, it occurred to me, “It is going to be a long life. In the whole, long course of my life, does [it] really matter?” Pondering this idea for a moment, I remembered that gentleness applies not only to how I act and speak to others, but also how I think, and how I talk to myself. Then, I thought, “…and if I don’t live a long life, and I die tomorrow, or next month, or next year, [it] really won’t matter!” I smiled. The though was more comforting than morbid. I felt silly for being anxious and worried about so many insignificant concerns.

Today, I can’t even recall precisely what last night’s [it] was. Most likely, [it] was some dietary indiscretion, a few days without exercise, a few nights of poor sleep, or some other perceived imperfection, but the plain fact that I don’t specifically remember demonstrates just how irrelevant these few dropped notes are in the grand symphony of the universe. Am I living up to my values? What are those values? When I stop to reflect, I know exactly how I am called to live my life.

“Then he said to all, ‘If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. What profit is there for one to gain the whole world yet lose or forfeit himself?’”

Luke 9:23-25

The cross is the sacrifice of self-giving love. It is the call to die to my own egocentrism, patiently bear the trials and tribulations of life, trusting God, loving always, seeking the little way. Am I choosing this path each day, each moment? Because, in the course of a lifetime, that is all that matters.

moonlight-path
Moonlight Path,” © V. Michelle Bernard (own work), July 2010. CC BY 2.0. (license)

The Kindness Challege, Week One – Going Gentle into a New Day

Featured Image:  “Carnation,” © Michael Dales (own work), Mar 2011. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

When making New Year’s resolutions, some people choose a single word upon which to center themselves and find motivation or grounding. I don’t think that I possess the mindfulness, consistency, focus, or diligence to remain intentional about the same word for a straight 365 days. It is hard enough for me to stay intentional, ever, even briefly. Sometimes, I become frustrated with my lack of consistency, or my absence of thought-fullness, or my failure to keep present, and I find myself growing discouraged. Defeatism and self-criticism harden my heart while the muscles in my body that are under more conscious control tighten and clench. I clamp my jaw at myself and my own obstinacy. However, there is an alternative perspective to this negative self-labeling. Recollecting my dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), and asking how else I might understand or appreciate this situation, this unwanted identity I find myself saddled with, my wise mind softly suggests another explanation, “My self-sayings tend to shift with my needs, much like my other patterns of behavior. I’m not fickle. I’m adaptable.”

Fact check – is it true? One week, I am drawn toward my coloring books and pencils in my free time, and my dining room table spills over with slivers of wood shavings and sheaves of bright paper. Another week, the pool is where I find my solace, swimming stroke after steady stroke through the cool water as I watch the rippling patterns of the sun dancing across the tile beneath me. For a period, I rise early in the morning and read in bed from a book of daily scripture or one of the spiritual classics. Lately, it is Brother Lawrence’s Practicing the Presence of God. At other times, I am more overworked and sleep deprived, and I bury my face in my soft pillow, pressing the “snooze” button at least twice. I want to be more consistent. I want to make time to meditate for twenty minutes every day, take walks in the fresh air each afternoon, journal every morning, and read every evening. I want to develop the habit of cleaning up one or two rooms of my apartment each week, and I tell myself that if I could just hit my stride, I would never again fall behind on the house work. The honest truth is, though, I am probably not ever going to be that constant, or predictable, or “balanced.” As I type out my concept of an idyllic routine, another adjective occurs to me. Boring. I remind myself of my favorite definition of balance – a moment-by-moment adjustment to life’s constant unbalancing forces. Deep breath. Sigh out. The foundation never changes, but just how those elements manifest and in what proportions they coalesce to fill time are as changeable as sand dunes in a sweeping wind. Recognition of this fact (again) may be why I find myself transfixed by a certain word as I move through each day and from one activity or task to the next. Gentle.

Middleburg carnations
Middleburg carnations,” © Sarah Ross (own work), July 2009. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

The first week of The Kindness Challenge, hosted by Niki at The Richness of a Simple Life read thus:  “Be Kind and Gentle with Yourself.” The challenge went on to prompt each participant to treat himself or herself like a close friend, replacing self-criticism, self-doubt, and self-shaming with love, tenderness, and compassion. Because, wrote Niki, “You have to love and accept yourself for who you are before you can expect for someone else to do so.” An interesting idea… But that was not what most captivated me when I contemplated self-compassion. The more critical question burning in my mind was, “How can I love another if I can’t love myself? How can I love God? How can I truly understand what love is?” These were the questions that sparked my recovery. These were the questions that changed my life. Or started changing it. After so many unsuccessful attempts at belittling and berating myself into changing, it wasn’t until I opened my eyes to God’s unsurpassed love for me, his unfathomable forgiveness, and his confounding, confusing, complete and unconditional acceptance of me right now, as I am (and as I was), in my broken, imperfect, iniquitous state, in the depth of the shame at the rock bottom of my eating disorder, that I started to recover. Who was I to withhold forgiveness from myself when God deemed me fit for forgiveness? Who was I to withhold love from myself when God found me worthy, despite all of my unworthiness, of receiving His perfect love?

For years, I worked, studied, read, analyzed, criticized, and slaved, to “fix myself” (i.e., be perfect), and the only visible result was that I sank deeper and deeper into anxiety, depression, neuroticism, social isolation, and a diseased mind and body. All those efforts weren’t for nothing, however. I can’t put my finger on the missing piece that finally unified the disparate fragments and focused a floodlight of insight on my struggle, but it smacked me in the face during a group session in the midst of my partial hospitalization stint. It was not as though I never underwent any changes before that moment, and it didn’t become any easier afterwards, but from that day forward, everything was different. The shift was painful and excruciatingly slow. It was an uphill battle against decades of mental illness, destructive and disordered thinking, and deeply patterned behavioral reactions. Only now I was fighting with LOVE.

Waiting for the Word
The Good Shepherd 130,” © Waiting for the Word (own work), May 2011. CC BY 2.0. (license)

With the epic struggle become more like day-to-day maintenance or a steady, lifelong construction project, the busyness of life can dull my attentiveness to that love.  I tend to forget what it was like when gentleness, love, and compassion were novel and tender and needed my constant effort to willfully turn my mind around each time I found myself reacting automatically with cynicism, criticism, doubt, anger, righteousness, disdain, judgment, shame, blame, or resentment… which was pretty much every waking minute of every day. New automatic patterns take over. Some of the old ways still remain, although they are largely transmuted. It is not necessarily that I am in danger of sliding back into that same dark hole where I was once imprisoned, but slowly, subtly, the glow in my heart dims

Enter The Kindness Challenge. Such was my state when I began the challenge, and I found myself revisiting the same questions that I confronted during those first few days of learning how to eat, how to trust others, how to trust myself, how to give myself permission to be imperfect/real/human/alive… What makes me worthy of love and belonging? Nothing. Only that I am a beautiful creature of my heavenly Father, created in the image and likeness of God, and filled with the Holy Spirit. I am just as broken and dysfunctional as every other human being, and I am just as endowed with the fullness of dignity and just as infinitely loved. How then, do I treat myself? Gently. In case I need another reminder, it is the Year of Mercy, after all.

“Nothing is so strong as gentleness, nothing so gentle as real strength.”

~ St. Francis de Sales

So… I went to bed early, and I took time out of my afternoons to meditate, if only for a few minutes. I exercised for the joy and pleasure of moving my body in a healthy, purposeful way, noticing the smells of the plants, the trills and chirps of the birds and crickets, the rustling of the leaves, and the chill of the breeze as I bicycled along the path near my house. I pushed my to-do list out of the way, and I pulled out my colored pencils. I held myself accountable, and I accepted my inevitable mistakes. I brushed myself off and I began again. I wrote down my gratitudes every day. Or nearly every day. I let go of being perfect or complete. Or I made an effort to let go. I took my time, and spent an extra two days to finishing this post. Deep breath. Sigh out. It’s a work in progress…

This new week brings a new chapter in The Kindness Challenge. As I endeavor to open my heart to appreciating the kindness all around me, I am making a note of the kindness that I find here, among my rich blogging community. And I am grateful. For another perspective on what it is like to cultivate self-love and self-compassion while recovering from an eating disorder, I encourage you to visit one of my favorite blogs, Beauty Beyond Bones. The author of this amazing blog writes beautifully and expressively about the emotional journey of recovery and of the process of reconnecting with God, self, and others. I always find unfailing kindness there. ♥

“Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice! Your kindness should be known to all. The Lord is near. Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”

~ Philippians 4:3-7

Elsea Meadow Bourne
Elsea Meadow, Bourne,” © Lee Morley (own work), July 2013. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

#RevofKindness #bekind

 

Before the Kindness Challenge – To Reignite the Inner Light

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

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

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

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

#RevofKindness #bekind

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

~ Colossians 3:12,14-15

kindnesschallenge

Riding the Rails

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ad astra per aspera.

Reach for the Stars
Reach for the Stars,” © Tony Beverely (own work), Sep 2014. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

Spinning

Featured Image: “Pinwheel Galaxy (NASA, Chandra, Hubble, Spitzer, 05/24/12),” © NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, May 2012. CC BY-NC 2.0.

In the back of my throat, I can taste the faint but distinct tinge of iron. Marsha peers over her narrow horn-rims and scans the room from left to right. I marvel at her ability to keep the plastic frames from sliding right off the tip of her sweaty nose. Her face is flushed and ruddy, and she is grinning enthusiastically. Demonically. I struggle not to choke on thick mucus and indiscreetly wipe my own nose on my sleeve. My goblet cells are doing their part to protect my fragile mucosa against the hostile, dry air.

As I close my eyes, I focus on the bouncing of the heavy shock of hair against my damp forehead. It marks time like a metronome, synchronized to each turn of my feet. Marsha bellows at us, “Take the bounce out!” and I am suddenly back in high school marching band. Mr. Hernandez is hollering into his megaphone, “Roll-step! Roll-step!” I imagine my upper half floating like a cloud above the line of my waist, my hips and legs moving entirely independently of my trunk. My body is eerily disconnected and yet fluidly whole. My eyes are still closed, and I feel the rickety fan shifting the air irregularly across the room. I look at the clock. I can’t believe there are still another twenty minutes remaining.

It’s my second spin class. Outside of yoga, spinning denotes my first foray into organized, structured exercise since well before I went away to Walden. By the time I began partial hospitalization last Thanksgiving, I was already so sick and hurt that my last participation in sports was a distant memory. July 20th, 2013. That was the date of my final race, a 10K. The trophy for placing third in my age group sits on one of my bookshelves to commemorate the event. What was the price? I can’t say that it was worth it. At the same time, it was a treasured experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything. However, I’m not going down that road again. This is different. I’m different.

Eyes gently closed once more, I visualize every strand of muscle cooperating in unison, linked by my vascular and nervous systems. Warm blood pumps from my heart, courses through my arteries into capillary networks, bathing my myocytes. Together, they shorten, squeezing the blood back through my veins, toward my right atrium, and the cycle repeats. My chest expands and collapses with each breath that rattles past my raspy pharynx. My body was made for this movement. Purposeful. I contemplate the word. There is mounting strain as L4, L5, and S1 arch backwards, carrying a bit too much load. I tell my abs to contract, and they oblige, pulling me erect. My shoulders slope down, away from my ears, relaxed. My fingertips rest gently on the handlebars. “Head up!” Marsha calls.

“Some of you could be working haaaaarder!” Marsha roars. She isn’t talking to me, I tell myself. My body knows what it needs. “Don’t cheat yourselves! Give me a turn and a half! A full turn!” she yells. I understand that her role is to motivate and to push the class, but that isn’t why I’m here. Once upon a time, yes, but not tonight. I give the resistance knob a nudge so that I am just driving hard enough to feel a moderate heat in my quads. There’s the suggestion of an ache in my left knee. I’m more sensitive to the plantar fascia on my right foot compared to the left. I take a moment to notice the absence of tenderness in the area of my peroneal tendinitis. I recite to myself the words that my therapist and I settled upon during our many conversations about my anxieties surrounding re-injury and my hyper-acute response to painful stimuli, “I am OK. It is not in my head, but just because I feel something does not mean that I am hurt. I am being moderate and attentive. I am not going to do anything to myself during these forty-five minutes that I won’t recover from. Here is where I build my strength and prove to myself that I am OK.”

After the class, Marsha asks me if I’m a cyclist. I ask her if riding my bike over the summer counts. She asks me if I would contemplate becoming an instructor. I have great form, and they’re looking for people, she tells me. My immediate thought is, Whoa, let’s slow this party wagon down. I want to blurt out, “I have an eating disorder!” Instead, I thank her for her compliment and explain my long recuperation from injuries and need for gradual rehabilitation. I stop myself there, but it’s so much more complicated. I am afraid of exercise. It’s a threat. It’s something that might derail my recovery.

When I return to the car, I am still so hot that I am forced to roll the windows down to keep from fogging the glass, even though it is mid-December. The cool air refreshes my radiating face as I pull away from the parking lot. It feels like hope.

Crazy Dizzy Spin
Crazy Dizzy Spin,” © Carly Webber, July 2014. CC BY-NC 2.0.

 

Not the Food

Feature Image: “Polar Vortex,” © Rick Schwartz, Jan 2014. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Something is different. Something is off. I can feel it in my sinews and sense it in my thoughts. Rigidity. Inflexibility. Fear. Uncertainty. Conflict. Confusion. Control. My muscles are tenser. The hollow that caves out beneath my sternum when I’m anxious is sharper. Even my sleep, usually blissful and serene, is nervous and fragmented. Tight. Forced. Edgy.

On Thursday, I realize that there is not enough plain, Greek, 2% fat yogurt left in the refrigerator to make up a full protein exchange. The cottage cheese is nearly gone, too. My thoughts begin to loop around themselves. “What will I eat? Not enough yogurt. What will I eat? No cottage cheese. There is nothing to eat. I have nothing to eat. What am I going to eat? I want yogurt. I could eat chicken or fish. I want yogurt. What will I eat? No yogurt. What am I going to do?” Four nights in a row, and I am eating the same thing for dinner every evening. The idea of something different scares me. I won’t be full. I’ll be vulnerable to a binge. (It doesn’t matter that in all the innumerable times this fear occurred to me over the course of the last year, accompanied at various times by various levels of anxiety, not once did it ever become a reality.) Somehow, I summon the flexibility to cobble together something different for my Thursday dinner. Just for this one night. Tomorrow, I will go to the grocery store. Tomorrow, there will be yogurt, and I will be OK.

On Monday, a box of chocolates arrives at work from Inga, who is in Germany at the moment. By box, I mean, a shipping box. Full of German chocolate. Ritter Sport and Kinder. (Ok, technically, Kinder is an Italian company.) It’s 9am and my colleagues are already stuffing themselves full of Happy Hippos, but I know that eating pure sugar this early in the morning will result in anything but happiness for me. I remind myself, “What is right for someone else is not necessarily right for me,” as I try not to judge them and try to not let their actions influence my own decisions or my emotions. My thoughts feel balanced and not triggered, but my body is telling me something else. That ball of rubber bands in my chest is wound tight, and my breathing is short. I am noticing this reaction is different than my non-reaction to the bowl of Kit-Kats that Brad keeps on his desk. I barely pay those unappealing, highly processed, waxy-tasting, artificially flavored concoctions a half-second’s glance. My eye flits over them and then forget them as soon as it turns to another object in the room. “I hate that the Ritter Sport and Kinder chocolate is different. I can’t change that this is different.” Acceptance is such a rotter.

Vortex
Vortex bw,” © Tony Higsett, Aug 2007. CC BY 2.0.

Throughout these days and weeks, my thoughts chug along the familiar railroad tracks of, “I’m eating too much. I’m eating too many calorie-dense foods. This time I will gain weight. This time I am eating more than I did before, and I will definitely be heavier when Kelly weighs me again. Why am I doing this? I don’t need a mug of hot chocolate in the evening after dinner every night. Why do I need the television to unwind at the end of the day? What is wrong with me?” It isn’t fun, but it isn’t intolerable. As my therapist observes, it’s remarkable that I’m not “white-knuckling it” through these periods as I did last winter. I do not need to consciously repeat to myself over and over and over, “Thinking about binging does not mean that I need to act on my thoughts. I don’t need to be afraid of food. I do not need to reject my thoughts. I can tolerate my thoughts. My thoughts can’t hurt me. Just because the food is there, does not mean that I will eat it.” I am not breaking into stress hives. No panic attacks so far. It’s irritating and annoying, it’s confusing and it grates on my mind and spirit, but I know that it won’t last. And I probably won’t even gain any weight. And if I do, it will all balance out.

As I sit at my desk on Friday afternoon, grimacing with the intrusion of perseverations, I tell myself, “If Kelly was here, she would ask me, ‘What is going on with you right now, because this is NOT ABOUT THE FOOD.’”

The funny and confusing thing is that I don’t feel anxious or distressed about anything in particular. “There’s nothing going on!” I am tempted to protest. Consciously, that is true. But… under the surface… I take out a piece of paper and in ten minutes make a list of twelve inciting factors. Why does one workplace need to throw FOUR different parties within the span of two weeks?! The Christmas shopping isn’t finished, the Christmas cards are mostly unwritten, and I am flying home again on the 19th. I’m considering undertaking a new volunteer activity. My imagination is beginning to stir with ideas of foreign travel for the first time in years, which is both exciting and uncomfortable, exhilarating and threatening. There are uncertainties at work and in life that I can’t control. The future is unknown. I can’t pretend it doesn’t bother me. Clearly, it bothers me. I try to make the uncertain certain. I tighten up my control. I channel those thoughts and energies into food and weight, without being any the wiser to what is happening just below the surface of my awareness. It’s unsettling and fascinating at the same time. I marvel at my mind’s capacity for manipulation. What a survival skill!

Last year, it was all about the food. It was about gutting it out against all obstacles. I was practicing distress tolerance daily. It was a minute-by-minute guerrilla war against my binge eating disorder. It took all of my supports, all of my resources, all of my new, tentative, abecedarian coping mechanisms to survive.

 

Bandaged Hands
Bandaged Hands,” © Beth Scupham, Oct 2011. CC BY 2.0.

Without the white-knuckling, I am becoming aware of what lies beneath, behind, beyond my fixation on food, weight, body image, and control of all of the above. On Monday, I find myself at dinner with Brita. The Christmas lights on the storefronts set my eyes and heart aflutter. The brightly decorated windows glow with the spirit of the season. I am bursting with warmth and gladness at the sight of my friend. Two weeks is too long! There is too much news to share between us! The restaurant is quiet and dim and as we slide into our booth, and the room seems to wrap around us like a soft blanket. There are only a few other patrons, and the waitress is all ours. The analyses, the ruminations, the compulsions about what I am eating melt away. I don’t even care that th(e roasted vegetables I order turn out to be half potatoes. I tell myself that potatoes are nutritious in their own way, and eating extra starch on this one occasion will not do me any consequential ill. When our desserts are served, I slowly nibble away at the entire slice of chocolate cheesecake. I’m way too full, and I know that I ate right through my satiety cues, but it’s OK, because it isn’t about the food at all. It’s about being with Brita tonight, in this place, in this moment in time. Even after we part ways, I am not shaming myself or berating myself, I’m not assessing how I need to act differently the next time. I just assume that I will do better, and I continue to relish the dancing embers in my chest where the cavern of echoes reverberated just a short time ago. I sleep as if in a cocoon of clouds and don’t wake until the next morning. When I do, I smile and think, “It isn’t about the food at all.”

Happy
Happy,” © Pete Georgiev, Apr 2009. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

 

November Twenty-Fifth

Featured Image: “Autumn radiance,” © Mark K., Oct 2014. CC BY-NC 2.0.

For Thanksgiving (and my 1-year anniversary of recovery), I decided to take advantage of my judicious use of vacation days to date and spend the entire week at home with my family and friends in Connecticut and Massachusetts. Four days in Connecticut and two days in Massachusetts for the price of three days of leave and two 13-hour car drives on either end of my visit seemed like a pretty good exchange for my favorite holiday.

Thanksgiving – the perfect opportunity to practice my dialectical skills. It is the one time throughout the year when the greatest number of my nearest family members assemble in one place. It happens to come at the close of my favorite season, autumn, when the air is crisp and fills my lungs with an invigorating snap, before the harsher cold of winter settles and nudges me inside toward the fireplace, hot tea, and soft slippers. I cherish what Thanksgiving stands for, the coming together of family, the warmth, the light, the joy, the expressions of love and gratitude. When I open my heart to those themes, I find myself humbled, my sense of connection to others and to the universe crests, and my entire being seems to thrive. It is so much easier to live authentically when I am drinking in a steady stream of Thanksgiving’s wholehearted nectar.

The holiday now stands as a reminder of the season of growth that I entered when I began the partial hospitalization program at Walden on November 25, 2015. There probably wasn’t a better time of year for me to become fully engaged in my recovery. A year ago, I thought, “This timing is great because it will get me through the holidays and all those horrible, stressful food situations. Bonus, I’m not at work for the endless parade of potlucks and parties. Score!” I didn’t stop to think, “This timing is great because as I am embracing a completely unknown way of thinking and existing, a way rooted in compassion, forgiveness, love, relationships, finding the deeper meaning in life, living with a sense of purpose, remaining present in the moment, letting go of everything else… the entire world is coming together to re-center on those very same ideals!” That worldwide invitation to ground oneself wholeheartedly, to strengthen the bond with the self and with the others around us, is what Thanksgiving represents to me. Maybe I’m too idealistic, but if that is the case, please leave me to my idealism! When I allow cynicism disguised as pragmatism to govern me, I don’t seem to go anywhere but deeper into my own ego-centrism and self-righteousness. I would rather answer the knock at the door of my soul that I hear during this season, respond to the invitation to revisit the values I hold so dear, and explore with curiosity and patience just where the path from that door leads.

Candle bokeh inside Munich Dom
Candle bokeh inside Munich Dom,” © Nathan Rupert, Aug 2011. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Here’s the thing… my inner critic, my cynically “pragmatic” demon, is never going away. I suppose that I can’t blame him. (I don’t know why I conceptualize this aspect of my personality as male, but that’s how I identify with it). In fact, I might actually be grateful to him, because I can imagine that if I walked about with my heart constantly wide open, trusting always, espousing universal love/compassion/forgiveness, and practicing vulnerability to the extreme, it wouldn’t be long before that same heart was ripped right out of my chest. A little suspicion and doubt keep me balanced, alert, and alive, just as a little healthy guilt keeps me in touch with my need to continue shining the spotlight of my values on my actual conduct, making adjustments and amends when I do wrong.

Thanksgiving isn’t only about family, soulfulness, and gratitude. Like so many other things of this world, it is neither all good nor all bad. It’s a time when our culture aggrandizes binging and a host of other disordered eating behaviors. While we make jokes about turducken and laugh about stuffing ourselves so full that all we can do is lie immobile on the sofa with our pants unbuttoned, the nutrition/health/dieting/weight loss industry is selling us an unachievable image of the perfect lifestyle. How many Paleo cookbooks, juicers, Nutrisystem plans, weight-loss supplements, etc. will be sold in the next two months? Thanksgiving is a time for every business to roll out their shiniest marketing strategies and glitziest promises of wellbeing, whether explicitly stated or merely implied (buy this sweater and you’ll be beautiful, thin, have lots of friends, and your Christmas will be picturesque). My cynical demon is seething.

The worst part for me is tolerating the talk around the family table or at the work potlucks. “I stopped eating all sugar and have lost 12 pounds and feel fabulous! You NEED to do it.” “I’m trying a juice cleanse between Thanksgiving and Christmas this year.” “I discovered this AMAZING new workout. It will seriously change your life.” “The reason your rheumatoid arthritis is flaring up is because you’re still eating wheat! My co-worker’s sister had the exact same thing, and when she went gluten free she was able to come off ALL of her meds. I swear.” It isn’t as though this sort of thing doesn’t happen throughout the year, it only seems that it propagates during the holidays… like a fungus. My cynical demon is roaring.

Deep breath. “You can’t save the world,” Kelly, my nutritionist, once told me. As November 25th rolls into November 26th, I am resolving to practice my dialectics. It is what it is. It is truly, amazingly, brilliantly wonderful. It is… less than ideal. There are certain ways that I can choose to stand up for my authenticity respectfully and thoughtfully, and there are a great many more things that are far beyond my control. I am centering myself on the light, the warmth, the peace, and the joy, I am practicing gratitude, compassion, and forgiveness, and I am striving for understanding. I am finding small ways to change my little piece of the world around me, and I am letting go of everything else.

Happy Thanksgiving to all! May we each cast a little more light out into the world.

release
release,” © Ahmed Mahin Fayaz, March 2012. CC-BY-2.0.

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.

Being Wrong

Featured Image: “Peterhof Palace Garden,” © Leon Yaakov, May 2010. CC BY 2.0.

How does growth happen? How does a person heal? How do I become the person that I am becoming?

My thoughts on the subject seem to drift in front of my eyes like an ephemeral mist. I stretch out my fingers to grasp at them, but the mere act of clutching stirs those same air currents on which they ride, and just like that, the understanding that was almost mine disperses in a gentle puff. I squeeze my eyes shut tight and try to recollect the pattern of the wisps before they disappeared… “Don’t hold on so tight!” I tell myself. “It will come.” My eyes relax, and I inhale deeply. This is what growth looks like.

Smoke,” © Centophobia, Apr 2009. CC BY-SA 2.0.

“Why does it hurt? Why does God let us hurt so badly? Why is it so hard?” Vivienne asks me over and over again. I only have one answer for her. It is always the same answer. I don’t know. For myself, hindsight reveals that my experiences of struggling and hardship, my personal losses and deepest grief, my darkest times and deepest turmoil, are creating the person I am today… and the person I will be tomorrow. Without those experiences, would I be able to empathize, to think dialectically, to see the world not only in shades of gray but in a multitude of colors? No. I would still be the arrogant, bitter, angry, resentful, perfectionistic, driven, striving, anxious, person that I was before all of my treatment helped me to see the greater perspective in those experiences. Now, at least, there is the hope that I am, just maybe, on the path toward a more profound capacity for love, forgiveness, humility, patience, gratitude, and joy.

“Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” ~ Søren Kierkegaard

I close my eyes again as the vapors swirl just beyond the thin lids. They are barely out of my reach. There is something else required for this growth that I so treasure… Perhaps there are many other somethings… But the one that comes to the forefront of my mind as I sit in contemplation is… Being Wrong. More specifically, I am finding that my own becoming necessitates that I be willing to admit that there is the possibility, the near definite likelihood, that I have been wrong in the past and may be wrong now.

_____

When people ask me why I have an eating disorder, or how I developed an eating disorder, I am usually quick to point the finger at my mother. My mom is a loving, dedicated woman, and I know that all of her actions were carried out with my best interest (and the best interest of my brother) in her mind and heart. She is smart and hard-working, with a master’s degree in special education for elementary school-aged kids with learning disabilities. Yet, I could spend hours recounting stories of shame, humiliation, and invalidation that I felt as a result of her parenting style. Despite the fact that I was always normal weight, when she wasn’t telling me that I was fat, it was subtly (or not so subtly) implied. When I reached puberty, she made copies of the growth chart from the pediatrician’s office, and then she sat me down after one check-up to explain that even though the doctor wasn’t direct enough to tell me I was gaining weight, she was NOT going to have a fat daughter, so I better shape up, because there was the irrefutable evidence staring me in the face that I had moved up a growth curve. When she took me shopping for a prom dress, out slipped the comment, “Oh, this one makes you look thin!” When I left for college, she threatened me with, “Not EVERYONE gains the freshman fifteen, you know.” During my second week in the dorm, I received a package in the mail. It was my very first scale, with a handwritten note from my mom, “The better to weigh yourself with, my dear!”

It seemed that nothing I ever did was good enough. When I brought home straight A’s on my report card, my mom asked, “Why aren’t there any A+’s?” The answer was that my high school didn’t use an A+ grade. A 4.0 was considered an A. When I came in second place, my mom asked, “Well, who was first?” Whatever her intention, what I learned was that my best was not good enough, I would never be good enough, I could never work hard enough or do enough, and I needed to earn her love and approval.

“Genetics loads the gun, and the environment pulls the trigger.”

~ Jenni Schaefer, author of “Life Without Ed”

It was not as though this harsh and critical treatment was reserved for me alone. She treated my younger brother with similar regard. My brother was a collegiate athlete on the water polo team at his university. They were in the midst of an intense cycle of training and competition one October when my parents went to visit him at school. “How’s it going with Mom and Dad?” I asked when I got him on the phone.

“Well, the first thing she said to me when I opened the front door was, ‘You look like you’re getting fat!’ even though I think I’ve lost at least 10 pounds since I last so them. So, there’s that.” Yeah. My mom was demanding, there is no doubt about it. But my brother did not develop an eating disorder, and I did. He doesn’t suffer from depression. His medical history is remarkable for his chronic allergies and his total absence of mental illness.

"Cape Robin Eggs," © Martin Heigan, Aug 2008. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
Cape Robin Eggs,” © Martin Heigan, Aug 2008. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

“I just wanted the best for you!” she protested defensively when I first confronted her after my eating disorder was diagnosed. I was so angry. I essentially accused her of destroying my life. What made me even more irate was her complete denial that there was anything wrong with me at all. I suppose that refuting the existence of my eating disorder made her adamant refusal to either accept any wrongdoing or responsibility for her actions easier for her. “Well, just how much weight do they want you to gain?!” she demanded to know when I told her the results of my medical evaluation. “I think you need a second opinion,” she argued when I attempted to explain the definition of binge eating disorder. I finally just stopped speaking to her entirely.

Fast forwarding about six months, I found myself sitting in one of the group rooms at Walden with Diana, the mental health counselor who was assigned to my case, my mom, and my father. It was to be our one and only family session during my six weeks at the center. There are a few strong memories from that afternoon, but among them stands out a recollection of my mom asking, “How can we learn from what Lulu is learning here?”

Our session occurred in the third week of December. I was planning to spend Christmas with the family of one of my college roommates, so uncomfortable was I with my parents, but after that meeting and much soul-searching, I decided to take a chance on going home. A few months later, I was back again for another visit. One afternoon, I found myself struggling with some difficult emotions. Near tears, I sat at the dining room table, and as I questioned how I was going to get through that particular obstacle, my mother replied, “With those new skills that you are building! You are really changing. I am learning just from listening to the new way that you talk about things.”

About three months after I returned to work full-time, I was invited to deliver a presentation at an international professional meeting in Florida. Everyone from my office would be attending, in addition to everyone who is anyone in our industry. I was still relatively insecure about traveling and managing my eating disorder on the road. By “insecure,” I mean “terrified.” How would I deal with restaurant meals? What if there was a (GASP) formal dinner! How was I going to survive a week with all of those work colleagues, who did not know about my eating disorder, and without any sources of support? I started asking friends if they wanted a free trip to Florida for a week. Alice had family obligations. Alexandra was already overbooked with business traveling. Therese was just returning from her honeymoon. The conference was occurring over Mother’s Day weekend. Joking with my mom on the phone as the date approached, I was relating my anxieties and laughingly said something such as, “Let me know if you want to spend Mother’s Day in Orlando.” The next day she phoned me back, stating in a serious tone, “If you really need me to go to Florida, then I will be there.” I couldn’t believe it.

She purchased her own plane ticket, and I bought us two passes to Disney World. A few weeks later, we were sharing a hotel room in the Sunshine State. We had a fantastic time. My presentation went off without a hitch, even though I was so anxious, my stomach was upset for an entire day. We both coped well with the little ups and downs of the week. My mom gently prodded me to think dialectically and to accept imperfection, and I reminded my mom that life is not just about what a person can achieve or accomplish. On our last night, we ate dinner at Epcot and gazed at a fireworks show before exhaustedly turning back to our hotel. My mother was once my main trigger and a major contributing environmental factor to the expression of my mental illness. Yet, as we both came to recognize the ways in which we could be wrong, she became an unexpected source of support.

I was so wrong about so many things. We both were. It took admitting it to ourselves and to each other to move beyond the pain. What am I wrong about right now, even as I am typing this? It’s an unsettling thought, and it’s difficult to admit that I’m probably mistaken about a great many things. But is that how growth happens?

I close my eyes. There is no swirling mist. Just stillness and the emptiness of my mind. For this moment.

Autumn Clematis,” © Tricia J, Sep 2012. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.