These Ordinary Days

Featured Image: “Winter Forest,” © Ya To (own work), Feb 2015. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.”

~ Socrates

On January 9th, a rather unremarkable Monday, the Catholic Church in the United States commemorated the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, and with it came the official conclusion of the Christmas season. Though my local Barnes and Noble began selling pink and red heart-shaped boxes of chocolates on December 26th, I was still lighting pine-scented candles and singing “Joy to the World” all through the first week of the new year. However, after enjoying the full twelve days of Christmas (plus a few), I felt ready to let go of the carols and the holiday films on TV. The tips of the evergreen boughs twisted into a wreath on my front door were starting to turn a bit ochre. It was time to move on.

In past years, the post-holiday transition would trigger a period of depressed mood with fair reliability. Yet, as I swapped out the playlists that streamed in the background while my tea kettle came to a boil on January 10th, I didn’t feel a hint of melancholy. Was my readiness for change related to my more modest and restrained decorating? Without a tree or lights, the thought of putting away the detritus of Christmas past was not nearly so overwhelming. Did my willing mood reflect more realistic and less idealistic expectations for Christmas 2016? Whatever the reason, I felt acceptance and peace with the onward flow of time. I was ready for a fresh start to a new, less ornate season.

In the liturgical calendar, we are entering Ordinary Time. The feasts are over, the celebrations complete. It is the beginning of the longest season of the year. These days may not be illustrious or renowned, but they are arguably the most important. This is where we labor at life. It is when the gifts are packed away and the magi go home that the real work begins. Every day, we face innumerable choices, and how we respond to the circumstances of these ordinary times defines who we are and the world we live in. It is during the course of these ordinary days that our love and compassion matures… or it doesn’t. Our values are practiced… or they aren’t. It is in this ordinary time that we become what we repeatedly do. This is where we cultivate the simple joys of the everyday. It is where we learn to appreciate the beauty of the sublime. We either stop to notice… or we don’t. We train ourselves to count our daily gratitudes and graces… or not. It is imperfect. It is hard. It is complicated. It is delightful. It is boring. It is awe-inspiring. It is exhausting. It is perplexing. It is so many things, but one thing is certain. This is the time of growing.

And so, once more, it begins.

“There isn’t any such thing as an ordinary life.”

~ L.M. Montgomery, Emily Climbs

snow
Snow,” © Andy Walker (own work), Jan 2013. CC BY-ND 2.0. (license)

Into a New Year

Featured Image: “untitled (New Year’s Day),” © Tilman Köneke (own work), Jan 2016. CC BY 2.0. (license)

“At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known. So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

~ 1 Corinthians 13:12-13

In the still, gray quiet of predawn on this January 1st, I turned off the background music which usually entertains me as I eat my breakfast, and I sat in silence. Gradually, my senses began to perceive the subtlety surrounding me. A candle flickered and crackled in a jar on the table, releasing just a hint of evergreen fragrance into the air. Across the living room, the blinds were drawn back from the heavy, glass doors, revealing the shiny, irregular surface of the frozen pond and the clear, mirrored reflection of the dark, leafless trees standing on the far bank. The wan light cast the world in muted, leaden tones, and dark clouds billowed on the horizon, but there was not even the hint of a breeze. The brass wind chimes hung motionless below the porch roof. Sitting there, at the dining room table that I inherited from my grandparents, the same table around which three generations of my family welcomed decades of new years, I leaned over a steaming cup of tea and a piping bowl of oatmeal, and I was filled with gratitude and hope.

This January 1st is my second in this townhouse apartment in Vanillasville. Rather, it is the second January 1st of this life in this apartment. It is my third January 1st, A.W. – After Walden. That is how I mark time now – Before Walden and After Walden. On my first January 1st, A.W., I was still residing in Boston. In another week, I would make that perilous transition back to life in Vanillasville, with my recovery hanging in the balance. I was still shattered into a billion jagged fragments, a fractured and broken person, but for the first time in my life, they were healthy fragments, and I was in the process of piecing them together. If I could tell that person one thing, it would be this, “Even though the future is terrifying, and you can’t see the way forward, and even though the risks are overwhelming, you are going to get through this, and it is going to be ok.” Maybe that person I was on January 1st, 2015 would tell the me of now the same thing. Though I am still in the process of becoming, I am not where I was on that day two years ago. Neither am I where I was on January 1st, 2016. It is sobering to recognize the truth of this reality.

The year of 2014 was filled with death. I was gravely ill with a serious gastrointestinal illness that defied every treatment my doctors threw at it. I was mentally ill with depression, and I sank deeper and deeper into despair. When my medical symptoms made it difficult to tolerate food, the disordered eating that percolated in the background of my life for many years suddenly seized control of my entire being as a full-blown eating disorder. I survived on the last feeble tatters of what were always slightly distorted, cynical, and disillusioned faith and hope. Yet, at the end of 2014, my life changed. In May, I underwent a new and still somewhat investigational intervention for my GI disease, which worked where all the other treatments failed. Finally, in November, I entered Walden to address my mental illness and my eating disorder. Through the intensive, multidisciplinary care I received, I finally began to rewire the twisted and misfiring circuitry in my brain. The big breakthrough came one day, in the midst of a group session, when the full impact of the following realization finally broke my steely, wounded heart:  God LOVES me. God loves all of us, because He IS Love. God knows everything about me. He knows all of my sins, all of my failures, all of my faults, and all of my dysfunction. He knows how messed up I am, and he still loves me, with all of that stuff going on. Even though he wants better for me, he forgives me, and he loves me just as I am. I don’t have to change. I don’t even have to be sorry. He still loves me. AND, if God loves and forgives me just as I am, who am I to deny myself that same love and forgiveness? Do I know better than God?

That moment was not a cure-all for my mental illness, but it was a major turning point in my recovery. In the past two years, my life grew in ways I never imagined possible.

Now, here I am, on the threshold of 2017. I don’t know what the future holds, and I wonder at God’s plan for my life. What I don’t doubt is that there IS a plan. God saved me for a reason. As Bl. John Henry Newman wrote, “God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission – I never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next…I am a link in a chain, a bond of connexion between persons…I shall do good, I shall do His work; I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it, if I do but keep His commandments and serve Him in my calling. Therefore I will trust him.” This year, I would like to increase in practicing an INTENTIONAL way of life. I would like to be MINDFUL and purposeful in what I think, say, and do. Thus, I would like to continue to grow in FAITH, seeking to do God’s will rather than my own and TRUSTING that all will be well, knowing that even when I struggle, face setbacks, or suffer, I am never alone, and an even greater good is being brought about by our Creator, who ultimately wants nothing for us but what is best.

“For I know well the plans I have in mind for you—oracle of the LORD—plans for your welfare and not for woe, so as to give you a future of hope.”

~ Jeremiah 29:11

beanstalk
beanstalk,” © Börkur Sigurbjörnsson (own work), Mar 2012. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

In this vein, my additional intentions for the year are…

  • to grow in true HUMILITY. A humble person knows her strengths and weaknesses, and is honest about both. May I not be afraid to say “yes,” to take risks, and to move beyond my comfort zone, bolstered by a realistic understanding of my gifts and my shortcomings. May I have the courage to ask for help when I need it, and the strength to offer help when I can give it. May I not be afraid to admit my faults with integrity, accepting myself as I am, with a willingness to confront the often-challenging process of making personal changes. May I recognize and own my mistakes with a healthy sense of guilt but without shame, seeking forgiveness and making amends when necessary.
  • to grow in COMPASSION for myself when I fail to live up to these lofty ideals, understanding that nobody is perfect, and this process is the work of a lifetime. May I also grow in compassion for others, recognizing that we all struggle, though our struggles may take different forms. May I seek to look past those differences that I am so quick to use to separate myself from people out of fear. Instead, may I foster the courage and willingness to acknowledge our shared human connection and begin to see others not as separate or opposed to me, but as an extension of myself. May I remember that we are all made by the same Creator, we are all broken, and God’s love is given freely to redeem us all.
  • to GIVE THANKS in all circumstances. Even if it seems the whole world is falling apart around me or my life is unraveling at the seams, there are always blessings to be found. Sometimes, they are hidden and obscure, and often, they may seem to be barely any consolation, but every situation is an opportunity for grace and for growth.

“In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.”

~ 1 Thessalonians 5:18

In our outcome-oriented, results-focused society, we are frequently reminded that effective goals are SMART – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely. (Bonus points for you if you can craft your goal into an acronym.) My areas of focus for 2017 are more elusive, metaphysical, and infinite. Therefore, I am making them intentions rather than resolutions. I am not expecting to achieve success in 2017. I’m not attempting to accomplish anything specific. Rather, I would like to continue growing through this year and beyond. At the same time, I know that concrete practices are the way to foster this progression. I think it is healthy for me to begin with a few explicit objectives. As with all balanced habits, they will invariably shift with the changing demands of my life over these coming weeks and months, but they are a start.

  • Cultivate stillness and silence daily. Practice sitting still, breathing deeply, and accessing my five senses for 10 minutes after coming home at the end of the day.
  • Reduce the amount of time I spend mindlessly watching television or thumbing through my mobile phone. Replace this time with mindful activities, such as reading, writing, art, or meditation.
  • Give my undivided attention to whoever is with me. Listen attentively rather than planning my next response. Show my face, without turning away or engaging in distractions, such as checking my phone (or turning back to my computer screen when I am at work – a tendency of mine that I would like to work on).
  • Cultivate balance in mind, body, and spirit, by making time every week for activities that engage each level of my being. Read a few pages of a book at least once or twice a week. Exercise in a moderate, healthy way (I have a specific exercise plan worked out with my therapist and dietician). I may not make time for every activity every day, but I can maintain a flexible and consistent rhythm through the week.
  • At the conclusion of every evening, before falling asleep, spend 5 or 10 minutes reflecting on the challenges, the successes, the personal encounters, and even the mundane events of the day. Use these nightly examens to assess who I am in relation to who I aim to be and reorient myself for the morning to come.

Finally, I am reminding myself once more that the outcomes that I care about the most are not those that can be assessed by any measuring stick or scale. May we all grow in compassion for ourselves and others in 2017, and may there be an increase in peace in our world through our little, daily acts.

“Let us accustom ourselves to noting that the actions that seem most ordinary are secretly directed by the order of God and serve his designs without our noticing it, in such a way that nothing comes to pass by mere coincidence.”

~ Bishop Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet

Happy New Year!

bells
bells,” © orangejon (own work), Jul 2006. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

 

To Be Known

Featured Image:  “Polar Bear – Alaska,” © rubyblossom (own work), Mar 2011. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

My best gift this Christmas wasn’t the new yoga pants that my brother and sister-in-law gave me, though I picked them out, and they were exactly what I wanted. It wasn’t the set of practical (and safe!) blinking, clip-on, LED lights that I can wear when I ride my bike at dusk, though they were also on my list. It wasn’t even the Starbucks gift card that I received in the office white elephant exchange. No.

It was a polar bear.

To be more specific, the gift was a charitable donation to the World Wildlife Fund in the amount of one polar bear adoption. I am reasonably certain that the money from the contribution goes to fund a variety of the organization’s conservation efforts, including measures to save polar bears and their habitats. In the mail, I received a form letter from the president of the WWF explaining that Margie, one of my college roommates, made the donation and adopted the polar bear in my name. The large package also included a photograph of “my” (or rather, “a”) polar bear, an official-looking certificate, a little card with some facts about polar bears, and the most adorable, soft, cuddly plush polar bear one could imagine.

On the radio this year, I heard some talk show hosts discussing “research” indicating that people generally don’t like to receive gifts of charitable donations for the holidays. I can’t remember the primary source of this information or where the results were published, but I can testify to this fact – though I recognize that Margie’s contribution to the WWF didn’t actually adopt a real, live polar bear for me, I LOVE MY IMAGINARY ADOPTED POLAR BEAR!!!!! I love knowing that this Christmas gift money went to an amazing cause rather than to the cause of amassing more stuff that I don’t truly need, no matter how purposeful it is or how much I really longed for it. I love the cuddly, little toy polar bear that accompanied the donation letter. I love the photograph of my curious (though I am sure, very ferocious) living polar bear in his native, snowy land. Most of all, I love how this gift tells me that I AM KNOWN, AND I AM LOVED. Despite all of my weird, often hypocritical, sometimes brusque idiosyncrasies, I am still loved.

You see, back in our college days, I thought that I was going to reverse the trend of global warming by convincing everyone I knew to reduce, reuse, and recycle. With alarming ideas about rising sea levels, disappearing glaciers, and shrinking ice caps in mind, I pictured the habitats of the polar bears slowly vanishing. While all of those factors were (and are) contributing to increased pressures on polar bears and declining populations, trying to convince my roommates to turn down the thermostat at night by exclaiming, “You’re killing the polar bears!” probably contributed little to improving the overall survival of the species. I can imagine that it was somewhat comical and frequently exasperating to live with me constantly declaring, “You’re killing the polar bears!” whenever someone showered for more than 20 minutes or left the water running while washing the dishes. “This from the girl who drives an SUV,” one of our friends once quipped after I made note of her excessive use of Styrofoam. In the interceding 10 years, life experience (and loads of therapy) buffered my all-or-nothing thinking and softened my approach. Yet, what this gift showed me was that Margie not only remembered this quirk of mine, but loved me in spite of it.

To be known fully, in all my imperfect messiness, and treasured just as I am… that is the best Christmas gift of all!

900-lbs
900 lbs,” © Arctic Wolf (own work), Nov 2008. CC BY-SA 2.0. (license)

It’s Christmas… Once Again…

Featured Image:  “Crossroads,” © Carsten Tolkmit (own work), Jul 2011. CC BY-SA 2.0. (license)

Midway along the journey of our life

I woke to find myself in a dark wood,

for I had wandered off from the straight path.

How hard it is to tell what it was like,

this wood of wilderness, savage and stubborn

(the thought of it brings back all my old fears),

a bitter place! Death could scarce be bitterer.

But if I would show the good that came of it

I must talk about things other than the good.

 ~ Dante, “The Divine Comedy,” Inferno I, 1-9

It would seem that I am at a crossroads of my life, and it is difficult to write about, mainly because it is hard to describe and confusing to experience.

When I first relocated to Vanillasville from Washington, DC, I never intended to stay. I welcomed the reprieve from the traffic, the expense, and the intensity of the city, but it was supposed to be a temporary respite. My family, my friends, and the cultural identity were all on the East Coast. I meant to work for three years, gaining experience and knowledge in my field, and then my company would relocate me somewhere else in the country. I was 26 at the time. I still believed that my life was something that I planned and controlled.

Those three years passed, and indeed I was offered an opportunity to relocate to the West Coast. By then, I was disillusioned by the sacrifices I was making for my career. I was working 80 hours a week, and there was no existence beyond my job. I dreaded moving west only to continue the same self-destructive pattern. It was the wrong move both geographically and existentially. At the same time that I was facing this transition, another position opened within my organization that would allow me to remain in Vanillasville but would effectively remove me from my competitive professional ascent. With 40-hour work-weeks, it would both give me a life and suspend my career. Neither option was perfect, but I chose my mental, physical, and spiritual health. I stayed in Vanillasville.

It would still take another year or two, a brush with my own mortality, and boatloads of therapy for me to begin to understand what Lucy’s father told her in one of my favorite movies, While You Were Sleeping. “Life doesn’t always turn out the way you plan.” I would never wish the severe, debilitating, life-altering colitis that affected throughout that next year on myself or anyone else, but the devastation of that disease led me to mental health for the first time and started me on a path to mental, emotional, and spiritual healing – the most meaningful and important journey of my life.

When I stepped away from my power-career trajectory, I took a position below my potential. It was what was necessary at the time, and it provided space for me to grow in ways I never imagined were possible. And yet… the job itself was never exactly satisfying or fulfilling. I always imagined there was something more out there that I could be doing. “One day,” I would tell myself. “When I am better recovered. After I am able to build some better professional connections and broaden my experience. When I’m strong enough. When I’m ready.”

When is that day? How will I know when I’m ready? I will never be strong enough, or prepared enough, or recovered enough, or experienced enough. The truth is that my recovery is going well. After more than two years, I continue to remain in remission from binge eating disorder. I never thought I would be able to be so flexible, adaptable, and relaxed around food. From time to time, I even find myself experimenting with the word “recovered.”

Two weeks ago, I emailed out my resume. Two days ago, I was given a telephone interview with the director of a program that would be a “perfect” fit for me, from all outward signs. Perfectly imperfect – it is still located in the Midwest. I don’t know what will happen. I don’t know what I want to happen. What I do know is that there is no going back. My job is a good one, providing a stable salary, excellent benefits, and allowing me to dedicate my energy and free time to what I value the most, but I recognize now that I can’t stay in one place forever. It is said that part of the temperament shared by many people with eating disorders is an aversion to risk, and I believe it. To leave behind this familiar world, where I am confident in my abilities, secure in my surroundings, and supported by a nurturing network of wonderful people, is both exhilarating and devastating at the same time. Yet, I can’t unlearn what I am coming to know about myself, and I can’t grow backward.

As Christmas Day nears, I am considering how far I am from where I was at this time last year. I can’t help wondering where I will be when next Christmas arrives.

“Don’t be afraid to give up the good and go for the great.”

~ Steve Prefontaine

adventures-in-averell
Week 27: Adventures in Averell,” © Alexandria Lentz (own work), Jul 2011. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

Dawning of an Early Light

Featured Image:  “Fireworks over the Mall,” © Tom Bridge (own work), July 2009. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

Monday, the Fourth of July, was Independence Day in the United States. As I reflected on that occasion, I remembered where I was and what I was doing on the very same date last year. As I briefly mentioned in my previous post, July 4th, 2015 concluded with me staring down the barrel of a fully-loaded ice-cream-sundae buffet. I nearly succumbed to the pure panic that the accursed dessert provoked in me. Nearly. 

Here’s the scoop… Oh, goodness, I crack myself up! But though I jest, there is nothing amusing about this next bit…

At the end of my road, there is a small ice cream shop, which is part of a local chain. Their homemade ice cream is touted as some of the best in the world, and it even wins national awards. Unfortunately, this shop is also a place where I engaged in some of my worst self-harming binge behaviors. At the climax of my eating disorder, I was dropping in two or three times each week for a double-scoop sundae with all the fixings and an armful of chocolate bars, to-go. From all appearances, it was impossible to tell that I already consumed the equivalent of a Thanksgiving meal earlier in the afternoon, and I would continue to eat for another several hours once I returned home. My binges only ended when I was laying on the living room carpet, clutching my abdomen in pain, tears streaking my cheeks, unable to even squeeze a sip of water into my distended belly, afraid I would die in the middle of the night from a gastric rupture.

When I returned from partial hospitalization treatment at Walden, I never wanted to relive that agony again. I was almost militant in my avoidance of my most provoking triggers, among them being the ice cream shop at the corner of the street. At first, the mere sight of the building induced such anxiety that I needed to pull out every last one of my coping skills each time I drove past. Slowly, over time, I built new memories and healthy associations with my environment. My diseased, habitually patterned thoughts and activities were overwritten by my new life. The ice cream shop faded into the background.

After my Independence Day sundae buffet confrontation last summer, my straight-talking and amazing nutritionist, Kelly, challenged me to explore my authentic relationship with ice cream. “Do you even like ice cream?” she asked. No! I wanted to exclaim. I hate ice cream! It upsets my stomach! It is repugnant to me! Blech! My reaction was one of self-defense. At Kelly’s insistence, I revisited my favorite ice cream establishment, using my new knowledge of mindful eating to fully immerse myself in the experience and enjoyment of the cold, soft, smooth, melty, sweet, sticky, chocolatey-chippy goodness. Yet, I remained tense. It felt too familiar. Too close to old behaviors. At least, that was what I told myself, in my self-defensive, self-protective way. “What would happen if you actually liked the ice cream?” Kelly prodded. Danger! Danger! Danger! I would want it ALL the time! I would eat it ALL the time! I would get fat! It would RUIN my life!

In the fall, my friend, Amelia, and I began meeting for dinner at a different, local, independent restaurant every couple of weeks. These outings were a fun, social events for us both, and they were also my project from Kelly. Every two or three weeks there was a new chef, a new menu, a new challenge, but the same, supportive Amelia and wonderful conversation. On our very first night out, we came to the understanding that we would always order dessert. As I sampled my way across an assortment of artisanal treats, I discovered something surprising about my tastes. The first new revelation was that I actually had tastes. Real tastes. Rather than obeying the impulsive, anxious, preoccupying urges to eat certain foods, I discovered foods with a taste, texture, and aroma that delighted all of my senses. I came to realize that I actually didn’t like many of the foods that were once the object of my obsessions and the fuel of my binges. Soon, I happened upon a new favorite.  Hot pastry, with just the right consistency, preferably a slice of cake or brownie, but sometimes a bubbling fruit tart, with one scoop of ice cream (just one please), and maybe a dab of chocolate sauce. There’s a moment when the ice cream juuuuust begins to melt and all the flavors swirl together in a way that is both cool and warm at the same time. Mmmmmm…

…… we interrupt this blog for the author to make a quick jaunt down the road for a brownie and a scoop of ice cream with hot fudge…… Did I mention that they make their own whipped cream at the little shop on the corner?!

Yes, the brownie was warm
Yes, the brownie was warm…” © Wade Brooks (own work), Dec 2011. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

Ok, I’m back.

Eleven months after I almost hit the pavement on the Fourth of July 2015, I confidently walked the short, ten-minute stroll to that ice cream shop at the corner of my street. I perched on a bench, with my little, plastic dish and spoon in my hands, watching the mint-chocolate-chip dribble down in tiny rivulets and swirl around the thick fudge. Dipping my spoon, I raised that first taste to my mouth… So yummy! That was all. Just, “So yummy.” This thought was not followed by a crisis of conscious. There was no panicked catastrophizing, no racing heart, and no desperate eyes darting around for the exit. I sat on the little outdoor patio, feeling the hot summer sun on my very pale legs, listening to the gentle wooshing of cars rolling by, letting the chocolate chips and nibbles of brownie slide over my teeth and my tongue, and soaking in every bite, every drop of those delicious, mingling flavors.

This Fourth of July, I celebrated freedom in a different way. I celebrated my freedom from fear over food. Or, at least, this one food. Happy Independence Day!

Ice Cream Open
Ice cream open,” © Jeremey Brooks (own work), April 2009. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

Burgers in Wonderland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A New Kind of Valentine

Featured Image: “Mt Edgecumbe Flowers,” © Rob Wright (own work), July 2011. CC BY-NC 2.0.

Over the last few days, I read many wonderful reflections about Valentine’s Day written by so many talented and thoughtful people. There were poems, letters, treatises, quotations, and photographs. My favorite pieces were written by Sanny Spear (“How many likes do you need to like yourself?”) and Ashley Wilson Fellers (“Five Little Reminders for You, On Valentine’s Day”). (Go read them!). Although Valentine’s Day came and went, I wanted to share my own, small voice on the subject.

Oh, Valentine’s Day. A friend of mine jokingly refers to this occasion as “Singles Awareness Day.” I have a new name for Valentine’s Day, though. I-Love-Me Day. Here is the story of my second annual I-Love-Me Day and the history behind it.

What could be worse than an entire holiday dedicated to true love (or at least expertly marketed that way), for a perpetually single, lonely, unhappy person? Actually, pretty much any special event that might be enjoyed with a special someone, like a birthday, Christmas, Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July, Labor Day, Saturday… During all those long years of untreated depression, any event was an invitation to self-pity. When I first sought mental health treatment for my mood disorder, in the midst of an acute adjustment crisis precipitated by some very traumatic life events, my personality testing revealed some “problem areas.” My cognitive behavioral therapist chose his words carefully. If I really wanted to improve, I was going to need to delve deep into my core, into the very framework of my being, to the foundations of my personality that were laid in infancy and built upon through childhood, adolescence, and on which I continued to construct. The basement was shoddy, dug in unstable ground, cracked and leaking, and the framework around it was all catawampus. I was going to need to dance with some very old, very scary skeletons, to shine a light into some dark corners while not entirely knowing what lurked out of sight. I remember my reaction as clearly as if it all unfolded yesterday. After thirty years of coping, what difference did it make? I wanted some survival skills to improve just enough to pull myself back from the precipice I was approaching. “Um, no thanks!” I replied, overly chipper. “Maybe we could just do some basic CBT so I can learn tools to help me be not quite so depressed.” I figured that I would be satisfied if I could return to my previous status quo. I didn’t know any other way of being. Oh, naiveté. What a blessing. I was about to go to places that I didn’t know existed in the depths of my mind and soul and open sealed trunks that I didn’t remember shutting. Before the rebuilding came the demolition, and it turned out that I had less choice in the matter than I presumed.

Ruined Steps
Ruined Steps,” © Chris Samuel (own work), January 2011. CC BY 2.0.

That girl, the depressed, driven, anxious, perfectionistic, never-enough, super-achieving, relentless, angry, resentful, hurting, fragmented person, was the one who loathed Valentine’s Day. Every February 14th delivered a fresh wound. Not only did I pick at the scabs, but I twisted the knives deeper and deeper into my chest with my own hand. Not once did I ever make plans, reach out, or consider anyone other than myself. Yet, when I wasn’t remembered and pitied by family and friends, I stewed in bitterness. At least my own parents ought to send me flowers! I thought. They have each other, and I have nobody. And I never will. At the risk of sounding too all-or-nothing and self-deprecating, even then, I could be thoughtful, sweet, and generous. But not on Valentine’s Day. On that day, I was toxic. I wasn’t yet able to recognize the distortions in my thinking that influenced my mood and behavior and contributed to my isolation and misery.

Part of the problem was that I wholly believed a lie promulgated by society and by many very well-meaning people in my life. I thought that my life would dramatically change for the better if I found love, or at if I was in a relationship. How many times did I hear, “The right person is out there for you,” and “It will happen when you least expect it.” There was always a bit of conflict in my heart, though, when those conversations arose, because, a) I didn’t believe such unsubstantiated and trite statements, and b) I was never certain that I wanted to marry. I was pretty sure from a very young age that I didn’t want to raise children. It just didn’t feel right. The idea made me uneasy, as though I was called toward some different path. I wasn’t opposed to the idea of marriage and raising a family. If it happened, that would be wonderful, but if it didn’t, that would be wonderful, too. It was while I was undergoing partial hospitalization treatment for my eating disorder that I realized it was okay to feel that way. A funny thing happened when I explained to my friends the new sense of fulfillment and enjoyment I discovered through cultivating my other meaningful relationships and exploring what it meant to live wholeheartedly. Suddenly, they thought my single life was fine as it was, and the pressure to date stopped!

Along came Valentine’s Day 2015. The message on the marker board at Walden on January 1st read, “Let 2015 be the year you start moving away from external validation and moving toward internal validation,” and I began to learn that I didn’t need anyone else to tell me that I was worthy of love. Thus, I-Love-Me Day was born. My little acts of self-care didn’t amount to much at first glance, but it was the attitude behind them that made the fundamental difference. Several weeks in advance, I ordered myself a dozen roses, to be delivered a few days before the big occasion. The fourteenth was a Saturday, so I purchased a plane ticket home for the weekend. Who wants to be alone for I-Love-Me Day? Love is meant to be SHARED! Of course, home is Connecticut. Of course, it snowed. Yet, it was beautiful snow. I thrilled at that lovely, fluffy, white stuff from the other side of a picture window, inside the warmth of a house filled with people, while I painted my nails and wrote Valentine’s cards to all of my friends, far and wide. I covered the stationary with glitter and with pink and red hearts. Considering the fact that I penned those notes on Valentine’s Day itself, I knew they would all arrived at their destinations a week late, but I embraced my imperfection, expressed my apologies along with my affection, and imagined someone cheerfully discovering an unexpected, belated Valentine on a random Thursday. I spent time with friends from high school, and I returned to Vanillasville brimming with gratitude and joy.

Soar
Soar,” © Dr. Wendy Longo (own work), September 2007. CC-BY-ND 2.0.

It was with eager anticipation that I looked forward to this Valentine’s Day. I ordered myself another dozen roses (yellow this time), and booked my flights. Around the middle of January, I noticed a particular sweater in the window of the clothing store next to one of my favorite coffee shops. It was heather gray with multi-colored little hearts in several rows along the scoop neck. It was perfect! This year, I managed to mail out most of my glittery greeting cards with at least two days to spare (although some are still un-mailed on my counter… I’m simply spreading out the love). During the days preceding my departure, I took so much delight in the thought of my second I-Love-Me Day that I never experienced the teensy bit of angst and apprehension that would typically pester me before any trip. Instead of perseverating over the laundry to be done and the messy state of the apartment, worrying about packing, ruminating on what I would eat, and repeatedly planning my schedule down to the minute, I told myself, It’s my I-Love-Me Day. It’s all okay. I never get the house cleaned before I leave on any of my trips anyway, so why bother about it? Everything will work out one way or another, just like always. And it did. I gave the driver of the airport shuttle an exorbitant tip simply because I could. I decided not to paint my nails simply because I didn’t want to. I stayed at a familiar hotel, where, despite sub-zero temperatures, I remained toasty warm. Each night, I took extra-hot showers for an extra-long time and then fell asleep extra-early on an extra-soft mattress. Confession – I wore my special sweater for two days in a row. On Saturday, I passed the entire day with wonderful friends. We made an excursion to the Children’s Museum, rode the train back from the city, and chatted away all afternoon. Sunday dawned cold and bright. After a bit of a sunny drive, I found myself enjoying lunch with another precious friend and sharing apple crisp à la mode. When we were finished, our waitress even brought us two long-stem roses. An unexpected treat! It was not as though the entire weekend was without bumps and hiccups, but they each seemed rather inconsequential when the tape deck in my head was playing, I-Love-Me Day, I-Love-Me Day, Oh how I love I-Love-Me Day over and over.

Now that I’m back, and my routine is creeping into my life once more, I am wondering, why can’t I-Love-Me-Day be I-Love-Me Week? How long can I make this last? There is still a pack of Hallmark cards awaiting a pen stroke or two. Maybe I will stop at the florist on the way home from the post office for another colorful bouquet. Perhaps tomorrow is the day that I will feel like painting my nails…

Pink Ones
Pink Ones,” © William (own work), June 2010. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Christmas Was

Featured Image: “Deep inside the ornaments…” © Windell Oskay, Dec 2006. CC BY 2.0.

A good friend stopped in on Tuesday night, and it was a comfort to my mind, my heart, and my physical being to see her after my week away. In broad strokes and fine lines, she painted the picture of her holiday visit from her co-dependent parents. As the vivid colors swirled together, I could begin to make out the shape of the upheaval their stay caused in her life. We laughed, we cringed, and I let slip one or two profanities. Then, it was my turn.

“Where do I even begin?” I wondered aloud. I sat on the champagne colored carpet of my living room floor, my back against the armrest of the sofa, tracing a directionless loop between its piles with my finger. How could I start to describe the events that transpired between the twentieth and twenty-seventh of December? I tried to write about it so many times, but the words would not unite. Fragments of adjectives, nouns, and verbs crashed into each other in my mind. I couldn’t put a single sentence on the page. This blog fell silent, and the empty echoes of my lost voice rattled me just as much as the deluge that seemed to pummel me from without. When I finally managed to form a description of how I was feeling, I composed the following on Christmas day:

I was flooded with thoughts and emotions tumbling together like a mass of tennis shoes in an industrial-sized drier. Hot pressure mounted as laces knotted and snarled. I couldn’t tease one reaction apart from another, couldn’t make sense of the logic from the feeling, and my brain screamed, “Turn it off!

Can't handle the pressure
Can’t… handle… the… pressure…” © nils.rohwer, Jan 2013. CC BY-NC 2.0.

The story was so twisted that I couldn’t find the ends to untangle it. Yet, I began. Soon, a string of events tumbled forth in no particular order, building off of each other with haphazard fluidity. Each time I thought the surge was cresting, another wave broke, while my friend listened with energetic attention and patient compassion. Finally, when I was done, she offered, “You were in survival mode. That’s all it was, just surviving.” That was why I couldn’t write. That was why I didn’t do better. Frustrating as it was.

Frustrating as it still remains with each recollection and retelling.

It shouldn’t have been so hard. I should have acted differently. I was aware of the instances when I was reacting. I could distinguish when I was using blame, judgment, and shame as defensive and offensive weapons, both against myself and others. At those moments, I held my reasonable mind against my emotional mind and chose the latter. I should have used the skills I learned. I should have made different choices.

Isn’t that the catch? Should may be one of the trickiest words in the English language. If is a close runner-up.

What exactly happened? The details of the actual events are not terribly important now. Rest assured, it was not about the food.

Could it be that the sounder I become in mind and spirit, the more plainly I observe the disorder around me? As I learn healthy coping skills for the first time in my life, return visits to the place of my dysfunctional origin is interesting when that environment remains mostly unchanged.

It shouldn’t have been so hard, but it was. “Grist for the mill,” my therapist called it. I called it fertilizer.

Maybe some learning and growth will come from it. For once, I am grateful for the 750 miles that separate me from the place I call home. Vanillasville seems pretty nice right now.

Today, I’m not going to blame, judge, or shame myself or others. I already did enough of that to last a lifetime. No. It is what it is, and it was what it was, and what will be what will be.

Instead, I choose to remember the joy of Christmas Eve with an amazing friend and her family, watching my delighted goddaughter unwrap her presents. I will cherish her pure excitement at the discovery of her new fire truck with its flashing lights and screeching siren. I will focus on the serenity of a Christmas Day bike ride, when temperatures peaked in the mid-60s and the air felt fresh and exhilarating upon my skin, and I will recollect the peaceful flow of early morning yoga. Finally, I will remember the wholehearted conversation with my mother on Christmas night that allowed us both to move an inch closer.

It’s a relief that it is over. It wasn’t pretty. I was hurt, and I hurt others. And I should’ve done better. I am telling myself that recognizing the gulf between who I am and who I want to be is the first step in bridging it.

Today I am choosing acceptance.

Christmas sno-globe
Christmas sno-globe” © McBeth, Nov 2004. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.