The Shedding

Featured Image:  “Cable car let go,” © Mr. Littlehand, Jan 2010. CC BY 2.0.

“Do you have a song that you want to sing to Lulu?” Alice asked. I could hear Elliot and Penny jabbering excitedly in the background. I was calling to ask Alice a question about coordinating upcoming travel, but it was a Saturday afternoon, and her two kids were sitting on her lap watching Frozen when the phone rang. Elliot seized the receiver almost immediately to declare, “Lulu, you’re MY Lulu!” I could feel my face cracking as a smile spread across my lips, crinkling the corners of my eyes and lifting all the little muscles of my brow. It was as if, with those words, not only my countenance but my very center changed, and a warmth and light broke through my rough surface, the way red-hot magma bubbles up through new fissures in hardened igneous rock.

“You’re my one and only Elliot!” I exclaimed, grateful that I didn’t know any other Elliots, and I could make such a bold proclamation with full honesty. There was some more fumbling as the phone was passed, and then the clear voice of two-year-old Penny came through.

“Leh ih GO! LEH ih GOO!” she belted. “LEEEEEH ih GOOOOOOOO!”

Her rendition of the signature Disney song left us all laughing. Finally, once Elliot and Penny could think of nothing more to tell me about their Christmas visit from Santa, Alice and I were able to spend more time catching up. Among various other topics, we chatted about our days in college, thinking ahead to our upcoming reunion in June. As we reminisced and exchanged news of mutual friends, I recalled some of my actions of which I was less than proud. “If I could do it again, I would do it so differently!” Alice exclaimed.

“I don’t know,” I replied. “I don’t think I would be who I am now if I didn’t go through it the way that I did. I think I would need to do it the same way again.”

When I consider who I was during college, I think of a girl who was hot-headed, self-righteous, brilliant but amazingly egotistical and arrogant… a girl who lived in nearly constant shame and mortification, who was never good enough, who was an outsider, and who hated herself with an intensity that could crack a diamond. My self-perception now is radically different. I would like to think that I am intelligent, but certainly not brilliant. I am less reactive, and I am less controlled by my emotions, which (I think) are also less fiery and extreme. I hope that I am growing in humility. I know that I am more empathetic and compassionate than I once was. A compassionate heart and a more open mind is a strange gift that my prolonged illness and my eating disorder bestowed on me. Thankfully, with therapy and medication, I am not nearly as depressed as I once was. I hope that I am not the same person I was in college, but I think that I needed her experiences. I needed to feel the effects of her decisions and the way that she lived her life.

Reflecting on the conversation the next day, I was overwhelmed with gratitude that this dear friend remained so dear. I was also mindful that I was not entirely mindful during our conversation. As we started to talk, I was thumbing through my email, but once I found myself asking her to repeat a comment she made not two minutes earlier, I realized that my attention was divided, and I was able to put aside my distractions. However, that didn’t stop me from painting my nails twenty minutes later.

In the midst criticizing myself (“What part of ONE THING AT A TIME is so difficult?!” I was thinking), when it occurred to me that I internalized every word that Alice spoke. With a pen and my journal, I breezed through our 55 minute dialogue, which rambled and ranged over work, family, holidays, weddings, children, friends, the past, the present, and the future. I WAS engaged. Perhaps painting my nails was almost reflexive, like picking at a stain on the tablecloth. In an unusual turn, I decided to let go of my self-criticism, accept Saturday’s behavior during my conversation with my friend for what it was, and move onward. “I wasn’t necessarily unaware,” I concluded. “But,” I continued, “maybe I can keep this experience in mind the next time I am trying to hold a meaningful conversation with someone over the phone, and I will be a little more mindfully aware.”

“If there are people you haven’t forgiven, you’re not going to really awaken. You have to let go.”

~ Eckhart Tolle

Self-forgiveness is hard for me. It is even difficult for me to forgive myself for struggling with self-forgiveness. Forgiveness, in general, is always a challenge, but when it comes to forgiving myself, there is part of me that still couples forgiveness with forgetting. I worry that if I let go of my guilt, shame, blame, or culpability, then I won’t be able to move forward. I will be destined to repeat the same mistakes again and again. It remains somewhat counter-intuitive to me that the way forward is to let go, yet when I am able to discard the weight of those dragging thoughts and burdensome emotions, my heart seems to blossom, and I feel more open and malleable. I don’t expect that my weaknesses will suddenly mend or that I will overcome my chronic problems by forgiving myself, as if I could simply kick aside or step around those personality traits and maladaptive patterns that remain my frequent stumbling blocks. No. I think that I will continue to repeat similar patterns as I work toward progressive change. Slowly. Bit by bit. With lots of trips, falls, and scraped knees along the way. However, the wounds will heal, and often the scabs fall away without even leaving a scar. There will be deeper cuts that may continue to ache, and the skin that grows over the gash will be a bit thinner and a bit shinier than what was there before. But… to not forgive would be to continue poking myself, over and over again, in those same spots.

“It doesn’t take a lot of strength to hang on. It takes a lot of strength to let go.”

~ J. C. Watts

One of the items on my long-term “to do” list was “clean out old clothes.” When I returned from partial hospitalization last January, I was quick to bag up armloads of pants, too-tight shirts, and belts that I associated with too many past behaviors or in which I simply could not feel at ease anymore. My philosophy was, “I’m starting over. If it doesn’t fit or if it isn’t 100% comfortable, it goes.” I dropped off a few garbage bags stuffed with clothes, both old and new, at my local church. However, there were a dozen or so pairs of slacks that went into a box, and there was a rack of dresses in my closet that I didn’t touch. I purchased just a few essential wardrobe elements to get me through the winter. I was still left with many articles of clothing that didn’t trigger a strong emotional reaction, but I found that I wasn’t wearing many of them. Gradually, I added a t-shirt here, a sweater there, and eventually, even a skinny pair of jeans. Every once in a while, I would glance over my drawers and pull out a few more items to donate. Yet, I knew that another thorough overhaul was probably in order.

“When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be. When I let go of what I have, I receive what I need.”

~ Lao Tzu

What possessed me to root through the hangars on the morning of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I’m not sure. That is exactly what happened, though. I thought that it would be a time-consuming and onerous process of trying things on and debating what to keep and what to give away, but when it came down to the actual doing, I felt surprisingly free. I found that I didn’t care if these clothes fit. Pulling down that last box of pants from its shelf after clinging to it for over a year, I was surprised by my detachment. I didn’t want them. Once, I was convicted that I would somehow “reclaim” each pair and learn to wear them again, but on that Monday morning, as bright sunlight streamed through the frigid air outside, I didn’t need to reclaim anything. I just wanted… to let go. I piled the dresses that were hanging untouched in their plastic drycleaner bags into a heap on my bed. I hesitated for a moment, because some of my cocktail gowns were quite lovely, and the sheaths and pullovers were versatile classics. Finally, though, it didn’t matter if they were still in style, if they were too tight or too loose, if they might fit again with a little fabric taken up here or let out there.

“One of the most courageous decisions you’ll ever make is to finally let go of what is hurting your heart and soul.”

~ Brigitte Niole

Clothes Clean-out, 18 Jan 2016 (#1)

Clothes Clean-out, 18 Jan 2016 (#2)

Clothes Clean-out, 18 Jan 2016 (#3)

Clothes Clean-out, 18 Jan 2016 (#4)

Clothes Clean-out, 18 Jan 2016 (#5)

Clothes Clean-out, 18 Jan 2016 (#6)

The extra space in my closet is really nice. What is nicer is the extra space in my soul.

Holding onto my eating disorder, to worries about weight and appearance, and to my fears about food is draining. It saps my mental, physical, and emotional energy. I am not where I once was, though neither am I where I’d like to be. What else am I holding onto? I have a sense that there is much more that I could let go of; the only question is… will I?

What about you? Are you holding onto anything that you don’t need anymore? At what costs to yourself?

“Did I offer peace today? Did I bring a smile to someone’s face? Did I say words of healing? Did I let go of my anger and resentment? Did I forgive? Did I love? These are the real questions. I must trust that the little bit of love that I sow now will bear many fruits, here in this world and the life to come.”

~ Henri Nouwen

 

Enough

Featured Image: “First Snow of Winter,” © melfoody, Nov 2011. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

It used to be that the scale told me if I was enough. My negative mile splits, total weekly mileage, and race times told me that I was enough. The number of calories I ate in a day and the growling of my stomach told me that I was enough. The concerned comments by friends and colleagues that I was too skinny and imploring me to eat more confirmed that I was enough. I was enough when I was first and best at everything I did, when I knew more than everyone else in the room about every topic discussed, and when I never made a mistake. When I looked perfect, acted perfectly, spoke perfectly, and performed perfectly, then I was enough. But it was never enough.

If I don’t care about any of that stuff anymore and it no longer holds any meaning for me, then what is left? Just me. As I am. Stripped away. Bare. Nothing but the me that I always was deep inside.

If people only knew the truth, they would understand what a fraud I am, what a pretender.

If Kelly, my nutritionist, knew how disordered my thoughts about food really remain.

If my co-workers realized how unfulfilling and unrewarding I find what we do every day.

If my therapist could glimpse just how much time I spend perseverating on my inadequacies, my worries, and the uncertainties of the future.

If my friends, my family, the other women in my eating disorder process group, and my blog readers knew just how unbalanced a life I lead, how judgmental my thoughts are, how critical I am of myself and others, how far away I actually fall from all the beautiful, pie-in-the-sky, wholehearted values I write about over and over and over.

In the process of writing about this way of life that I so long for, it seems tangible, and I start believing that I am almost living it already. Then a day passes, two days, a week, and I wonder how I could still be so incomplete, so distant from my goal, so unbalanced, judgmental, critical, and negative. The cycle repeats itself.

Not the Blair Witch wood
Not the Blair Witch Wood,” © melfoody, Nov 2011. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Could Kelly tell how frustrated and anxious I was during our bi-weekly appointment this morning? It felt like those emotions were exuding from me like terrible B.O. To start our session off, I was somewhere between 10-15 minutes late, which is even worse that my chronic habit of turning up about five past the hour. I couldn’t even offer any sort of explanation or apology beyond, “I’m so sorry.” Perhaps, sometimes, that is best. Don’t make excuses, just accept culpability. I didn’t come up with that idea on my own. The credit goes to Harriet Lerner, PhD, and her book, The Dance of Connection. Anyway, how could I explain why it took an extra ten minutes for me to collect myself sufficiently to get out the door and into my car? I myself wasn’t even too sure what happened. All seemed well, and then I was suddenly pushing fluids, struggling to pace my breakfast, and straining to go to the bathroom before my first post-Thanksgiving weigh-in. “Messed up,” I told myself, “I’m so messed up.”

Talking to Kelly usually makes me feel better. When I first started meeting with her, I would sometimes be triggered by our conversations and the challenges that she set before me, but that happens pretty infrequently these days. This morning, the words tumbled out of me like some sort of confused fog. I felt like Elliott dumping his multi-colored Legos all over the floor and then trying to puzzle together a new construction from it. “You would be so disappointed in me,” I confessed, “I ate pretty much the exact same thing every day last week, and since coming back, I ate the same thing for dinner three nights in a row.”

She leaned in toward me in that way that she does when she wants me to pay attention. “You did what everyone else does when they are in an environment that is different from what they are used to. You worked with what was available to you, and you got by. You did what you had to do. You’ll do the same thing during Christmas.”

Why does it make so much sense when someone else says it?

We talked about the holiday season, the parties, food, exercise, family, and flexibility, but it was hard to make sense out of the jumbled mess of Legos scattered all about the beige carpet. Too much. Not enough.

—–

 

“Not enough might as well be tattooed on the inside of my eyelids,” I think as I drive down the road from Kelly’s office toward my own. That message is always there whenever I close my eyes. Whenever I breathe. During every quiet pause and every busy movement. It is imprinted in my brain. Not good enough. Not trying hard enough. Not reading enough. Not journaling enough. Not working enough. Not going to enough yoga classes. Not keeping the apartment tidy enough. Not drinking enough green tea. Not getting enough sleep. Not drinking enough water. Not eating enough variety. Not regulating my emotions well enough. Not reviewing my skills workbook often enough. Not swimming enough. Not drawing enough. Not painting enough. Not praying enough. Not balanced enough. Never enough. Never. Never.

“Enough of not enough!” my therapist once exclaimed, but it’s as if someone branded it into my cortex and it’s a scarred rut. No matter how many times I try to scrub it out or paint over it, the impression of the words remains.

I need an industrial-strength sandblaster. “Enough, enough, enough,” I am telling myself as I type these last words. “Let it just be enough.”

padmaloka winter scene
padmaloka winter scene,” © n.a.t.u.r.e, Jan 2013. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Thank You to My Former Nemesis

Featured Image: “thank you,” © Amy Gizienski, April 2011. CC BY 2.0.

This October and November mark a one-year anniversary of a plunging spiral, and I am processing what that means for me now, in my current state of recovery. Though my decompensation was prolonged, my “rock bottom” and the beginning of my climb toward the light followed shortly one after the other. In October, I was binging daily, was barely functioning on any level, be it cognitive, emotional, or physical, and was afraid that my suicidal ideation might become something more. By the end of November, I was taking my first, shaky steps into this strange, bizarre, foreign land of “recovery.”

Isn’t it funny how the way we might experience something in a moment differs from the way we record it into our memories like an odd collection of snapshots, sound bites, and video segments, and differs yet still from the way it appears to us if we are ever able to examine objective pieces of that moment a long time later, such as an actual photograph or recording?

I remember that it was a struggle for me to accept the meal plan that was individually tailored to my needs when I entered partial hospitalization. I recall arguing with my first nutritionist, Olivia, and I recollect that it took me a little while to trust her. I can flask back to the leap of faith I made when I began eating carbohydrates and snacks. I can revisit snippets of events – for example, the conversation that I had with myself in the shower after my second day at Walden, as I tried to talk myself into doing things “their way.” The intensity of my emotion is lost on me, though. I can only vaguely imagine what it must have felt like, how anxious and distressed I must have been to relinquish that stranglehold of control.

A few days ago, I cracked the spine on the journal that I kept while I was at Walden. I was forced to dig through a pile of journals to find it, because since that time, I filled up about eight black Moleskines with line after line of black ballpoint in careful cursive. My life bridges two lives, “before Walden” and “after Walden.” In my memory, they are distinct, but staring up at me in not-so-careful cursive was something that was anything but distinct. On my first day at Walden, I wrote, “The only negative interaction that I had today was with Olivia, the nutritionist/dietician. The diet that she wants me to follow is HORRIBLE!” What ensued across the page was a word-for-word recapturing of a confrontation that I can only picture, knowing myself. I could imagine how frustrated, enraged, indignant, and righteous I felt, but the intensity of that moment was gone as I read the words that I scrawled in capital letters and double-underlined. In its place, I found only surprise and knowing laughter. I was surprised that I forgot what it was like, and I laughed with heartfelt empathy for my confused, conflicted self.

Moleskine
Moleskine,” © Linelle Photography, Aug 2016. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

I’m a scientist by training and profession. Sometimes, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. My reasons for refusing carbohydrates were grounded in fact, but were so distorted, black-and-white, extreme, rigid, and, in retrospect, ridiculous, that when I read what I wrote with my own hand, I couldn’t help but break into laughter. Later, I showed the journal page to my therapist, and we laughed together. At the same time that I was accusing Olivia of being brainwashed by the grain industry, my brain (which only uses glucose for fuel) and body were craving those complex starches that I refused to permit myself to eat.

Regardless of the path my life takes, my partial hospitalization will always stand as a bend in its course. Yet, the clean division that I created in my recollection did not bear forth in my re-reading of my journal entries during those days. There is no old me and new me, there is only this one me, all messy and merged. I cringe as I type out those words, because I so want it to be otherwise, but denial won’t create reality. And, so, I accept that there was no “aha!” moment, and there probably won’t be. I hope that I keep climbing toward the light, but it isn’t a straight climb, and it never was. I’m on some narrow mountain pass that twists round and round, and I only gain elevation by coming back across the same face of the mountain that I crossed three times already. Sometimes the trail takes a dip or a drop, and other times the ground is level and the going seems easy.

It only took a few weeks for me to begin to, first, trust and, then, to like Olivia. She once admitted to me that she was the one counselor at the center that all the patients hated. “I’m the one who makes them eat,” she sighed. “They love the therapists, they don’t fight with the psychiatrists, but everyone always hates the nutritionist.” Her tone was accepting, not resentful or bitter. She never gave up on any of them, just as she didn’t give up on me. She worked away at my inflexibility with steadfast persistence, never yielding. When I fought, she held her ground. I hated her, and she helped to save my life. So, to Olivia, and all the others like her, I want to say, from the depths of my heart, “Thank you.” Thank you for pushing me, for confronting my demons with me, and for showing me my own capacity for folly. At this time next year, I can’t help but wonder what I might be laughing at about myself as I am today.

Mountain Path
Mountain Path,” © Louis Vest, June 2014. CC BY-NC 2.0.

Riding Shotgun

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

I did then what I knew how to do.

Now that I know better, I do better.

~ Maya Angelou

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Though much is taken, much abides; and tho’

We are not now that strength which in old days

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

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

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

~ Alfred Lord Tennyson, Ulysses

I CAN Go Home Again

Featured Image: “Front Door,” © Stephen Grebinski, Sep 2008. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

… after buckets of therapy and a family intervention by one of my mental health counselors. As of last Christmas, I hadn’t really spoken to my parents in about six months, save for a very limited number of terse exchanges and one overnight stay at their house in November while I was awaiting my admission into the partial hospitalization treatment program at Walden, just over an hour’s drive north. In fact, I was so alienated from my parents and so angry with them that I was planning on spending Christmas with the family of one of my college roommates. It just so happened that I made bounding progress in the weeks between Thanksgiving and that much-anticipated holiday – more progress than I made in the entire preceding year and a half of cognitive and dialectical behavioral therapy for my depression and binge eating disorder. After my parents drove up for a sit-down with my counselor at Walden, I (with the support of my treatment team) was ready to admit that I missed my mom’s amazing Christmas decorations, the evenings we spent together watching classic movies like It’s a Wonderful Life, and opening gifts beneath the  beautiful tree, draped in the same ornaments year after year. It was five years since I last experienced a Christmas in the house where I grew up. At first, I was kept away by a chaotic work schedule, and then I managed to convince myself that I didn’t need it. I would save the vacation time and the money on airfare, and my parents would drive out to visit me in Vanillasville while I continued to work.

Well, I did need Christmas. A real Christmas. A home Christmas. And after all that therapy, I was starting to get to a place of acceptance and forgiveness. Acceptance of my parents for who they are, acceptance of myself, and forgiveness of us all. The idea was beginning to dawn on me that my parents might not ever change, and that it was actually OK. I could still love them with all their flaws and imperfections, just as I was learning to love myself in my unfinished state. Maybe there was hope for the relationship. The other piece of the puzzle was my binging. For the first time in my life I was not binging or restricting, my weight was stable, and I had a plan for how to keep moving forward in that same direction. A meal plan! And twice weekly, blind (meaning that I couldn’t see the number on the scale) weights, and a nutritionist nearby everyday, and a whole group of supporters with whom I “processed” for six hours a day, five days a week. Recovery was my full-time job. Knowing that I was going straight back to the safety of that environment on December 26th, I made the leap.

Bridge Over Troubled Water,” © Bert Kaufmann, 2010. CC-BY 2.0.

I still remember the anxiety I felt on that first trip back to the place where I learned all my eating behaviors and where they were reinforced for 18 years (and then sporadically whenever I made a visit afterwards). I was finally owning my eating disorder, though. And for the first time, it seemed like my parents were willing to begin acknowledging the role of our family dynamic in my lifelong struggle with mental health issues. The first order of business was to outline BOUNDARIES. I collected my parents around the table and showed them a typed piece of paper with two neat columns. At the top of the page, it read, “Tips for Living with Lulu’s Eating Disorder.” On the left, one column was titled, “Helpful (Please DO!)” and on the right was “NOT Helpful (Please DON’T).” Please do ask me, “Is anything bothering you/upsetting you?” or “How are you doing?” Please don’t ask me, “Should you be eating that?” Please do talk about ways to live a healthy, balanced life and prepare nutritious, enjoyable meals. Please don’t talk about how many pounds you need to lose or how many pounds you recently gained. There were many more, and some were very specific to my personal triggers (like loud noises). After we talked, I stuck the list to the refrigerator door with a magnet, and whenever someone in the house began to act up, I would declare, with as much humor as I could muster, “Does someone need to go read the list again?”

It wasn’t easy, but it was a monumental achievement for all of us, and I’ve been able to make more trips back home since those days. As I become more confident and secure in my recovery, and as I my continue practicing my recovery and interpersonal effectiveness skills, it becomes less awkward and forced, but of course there are always disagreements or issues of one form or another. That’s just family life in general.

As I type this, I am seated in the study of that familiar place. Little hints of gratitude, serenity, belonging, and joy are percolating in my heart. It’s just a brief weekend respite, and I’ll be back in Vanillasville come Monday morning, but for this moment, I am home.

Contentment,” © flattop341, 2006. CC-BY 2.0.

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.