The Perfection Deception

Featured Image: “WAITING,” © Kai Schaper (own work), May 2013. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

At the moment, I am soaring over the North American continent, contentedly perched in the aisle seat of an exit row, directly over the wing. There is a hot cup of freshly-brewed, dark roast positioned on the floor. I wiggle my toes in my leather, Birkenstock thongs as I stretch out my petite legs, reach down to grab my coffee, and savor a long pull.

At this point in my life, I am an airline-traveling pro. My frequent visits home find me navigating the friendly skies at least once a month, and that doesn’t include my trips for work. Before I became very sick, I was even a semi-regular international traveler, though I have yet to overcome my lingering trepidation to venture abroad in recovery. There is a distinct separation, not only in time but in my being, between the traveling that I did before I began treatment for my eating disorder and my post-Walden adventures.

After leaving partial hospitalization and hesitantly, precariously, fearfully, re-entering the world beyond the structure of the program, I found that traveling was not easy for me. In fact, I found that traveling was never particularly easy for me. I always tended toward a more anxious, easily agitated temperament. Disruptions to my routine, removal from my comfortable and predictable surroundings, and the introduction of a host of unknown variables tipped my equilibrium, but I didn’t possess the self-awareness to recognize my emotions. Before I undertook treatment, I was unequipped to see the pattern that reproduced a similar reaction time and again. I lacked the mindfulness to cope with my circumstances or to tolerate the uncomfortable, automatic responses that were triggered. All I recognized was that I felt an unpleasant intensity that I did not want to experience, and I judged myself harshly on account of it. After so many bags packed, tickets purchased, and miles logged, security lines traversed, on-boardings, and off-boardings, I really would accept no excuses for less-than-perfection from myself. I was not allowed to be anxious, to not know the inside scoop on every traveling tip and trick, or to ever make a mistake. Finding myself stuck in an airport was certainly no reason to derail my fastidiously clean eating. I would walk miles across multiple terminals to find the healthiest salad. No dressing. Water only to drink. No peanuts, please. My rigidity and lack of compassion for myself only magnified the intensity of my negative emotions. (Go figure!) Cycles of escalating restricting would, in turn, amplify my anxiety and desperation, leading to narrower, meaner, more rigid thinking and even further restriction. Later in my eating disorder, I progressively spiraled into more frequent and severe binging episodes. After a time, I came to expect this outcome with any departure from the immediate vicinity of my work and apartment. I isolated more and more, and I traveled less and less.

Aerials
Aerials,” © Metaloxyd (own work), Sep 2010. CC BY-SA 2.0. (license)

The very first obstacle that I tackled after leaving Walden was the 13-hour drive back to Vanillasville. I didn’t want to leave, but as the psychiatrist who was overseeing my medical care told me in a frank and honest way one afternoon, “Your life is not here.” Throughout the entire day that it took me to cross those roughly 850 miles, I drew on every coping and distress tolerance skill I learned over the preceding six weeks. Every few minutes, I found myself intentionally redirecting my thoughts, self-soothing, rationally responding to a cyclone of distorted fears, or silently and tearfully whispering desperate prayers as I repeated, “It IS ok. It will BE ok. No matter what happens around me, I am ok.”

The very next weekend, I boarded a plane back to Boston. I knew that I couldn’t isolate and avoid, as I did before treatment, and it was my goddaughter’s baptism. At first, my anxiety and apprehension swelled like a brewing tropical storm before every trip. Long before I ever pulled my suitcase out of the closet, I entered the fray of pitched battle against eating disorder impulses, which were fueled by triggering memories of past behaviors and by my panic over the surrender of control that traveling required. With my therapist and my nutritionist, Kelly, I spent several weeks in advance of each departure strategizing, planning, and coping-ahead. With every complicated connection, delay, rerouting, traffic jam resulting in an almost-missed flight, rude attendant, unpleasant seat mate, lost bag, missed snack, spilled drink, etc., my self-confidence, adaptability, resourcefulness, and resiliency grew. Eventually, I reached a point where I occasionally forgot to even mention to Kelly or to my therapist that I was leaving town. The topic might come up in an offhand way, such as the time I mentioned to Kelly, “I had a great time with Alice last weekend. We went to the playground with the kids and took them for a walk with their bicycles…” She tipped her head to one side, eyeing me quizzically. “Didn’t I tell you I was going to Massachusetts last weekend?” I asked, genuinely surprised at my forgetfulness, as smiles creased both of our faces.

No matter what perchance occurrence befell me, it always worked out in the end, one way or another, ultimately. I learned that if I was dashing out the door in dread of making it to the airport on time, I could leave dishes in the sink, laundry in the dryer, dirty sheets on the bed, and the world continued to turn. I discovered that the house wouldn’t crumble to its foundations if I didn’t clean it from top to bottom and take out all the trash every time I left for a weekend away. If I could manage to throw together a shirt or two, a pair of PJs, and a couple changes of underwear and socks, chances were good that I would be able to cope with just about anything. I didn’t need to bring ten outfits for two days, and I could survive for an entire week with what I could fit in my smallest roller-bag. I learned what foods were easily transportable in a carry-on, and it became my habit to fill up half my shoulder bag with snacks and emergency rations. If I ever found myself camped out overnight on a bench in Atlanta (again), there would be no need for worry – I flew with everything I needed to assemble a dinner on-the-go and breakfast the next morning.

Seats
Seats,” © Don Harder (own work), Nov 2014. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

My departure for the airport today went off without a hiccup. Not one single hiccup. Packing and prepping was even smoother than usual this time around, likely because I’ll only be away for two days, compared to the weeklong trips I was taking throughout the spring. I was even left with enough time for a leisurely breakfast with Pangur Ban, my cat, at my side. With my bags assembled by the door, I sat down on the living room floor to paint my toenails. Brushing on the bright, poppy color slowly and smoothly, I thought, “So PERFECT!”

Hang on…

There was something not… quite… right… Not perfect… Though it felt perfect… Deceptively so.

It couldn’t be true, could it? After all, one of the tenets of my newfound authentic life was, “Nothing in this life is perfect. Only God is perfect. Circumstances are not perfect, I am not expected to be perfect, and neither is anyone else.” I employed one of my methods for testing the validity of automatic thoughts by asking myself, a) Is it true? and, b) Is it helpful? “So perfect,” tripped both alarms.

It occurred to me that this impression of my trip’s perfect beginning was not only likely inaccurate, it was potentially dangerous. If I fell into the illusion of believing that my morning was progressing perfectly, what sort of expectation was I establishing for the rest of my day. Or for my next trip? Would I be disappointed when I was rushing out the door in a few weeks, dishes in the sink, toenails looking chipped and shabby? Would I doubt myself and lament that I wasn’t performing up to my full potential? In the back of my mind, I would remind myself, “Comparison is the thief of joy,” but that wouldn’t necessarily stop the thoughts from occurring.

So… I reflected a bit more deeply on the events of the preceding few hours, and I recollected the night before. I was sleep deprived, after choosing to stay up watching YouTube videos rather than engaging in more mindful, relaxing activities that might better calm my frazzled nervous system and very, very lively brain into quiescence. During the first half of that leisurely breakfast I mentioned, I was a bit distracted and not very present with the experience. Here, I was painting my toes, but I would not be able to devote any care to my fingers until I reached my destination. Able to see these few, tiny blemishes in my otherwise spotless experience, I stopped.

Not perfect, I told myself, reassured. But, I allowed, still wonderful and amazing. These little bumps, these little snags, they take nothing away from the joy of this moment. This morning is still good. It is VERY good. But it’s not perfect.

I realized that today was not the first time that I stumbled into this trap. Nostalgia and comparison trip me up not infrequently. Identifying both the positives and negatives in the truth of the situation seemed like a healthy way to reality check. AND, even as I brought my mindful attention to the few, dim clouds in an otherwise bright, blue sky, I reminded myself, This moment is no less incredible because it is imperfect. Maybe, it is even more incredible on account of its imperfection.

Whether it’s across the street or across the world, I wish you happy and imperfect travels. ❤

Big Sky (2)
Big Sky (2)” © spodzone (own work), July 2010. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

Compassion for Self and Kindness for Others

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

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

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

~ Blessed Mother Teresa

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

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

~ St. Thérèse of Lisieux

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

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

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

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

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

~ Blessed Mother Teresa

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

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

~ Blessed Mother Teresa

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

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

~ Blessed Mother Teresa

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

Letting Go of Kindness – An Act of Self-Compassion

Featured Image:  “~Cloudy Sky~,” © ~Sage~ (own work), Sep 2006. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

A couple weeks ago, I began to fall behind on my Kindness Challenge reflections, which was ironic, considering that the emphasis during the third week was on radiating kindness through my daily acts of living. After returning from my life-changing experience at Walden in January 2015, what I desired more than anything else was to become the most loving, empathetic and compassionate, authentic version of myself possible. Could any goal be more congruent with the third week of the challenge?

“Then, beside myself with joy, I cried out: “O Jesus, my Love, at last I have found my vocation. My vocation is love! Yes, I have found my place in the bosom of the Church, and this place, O my God, Thou hast Thyself given to me: in the heart of the Church, my Mother, I will be LOVE!”

~ St. Thérèse of Lisieux

Thus, I figured that this third week would result in no great change from my everyday strivings to live wholeheartedly, lovingly, generously, and authentically. Still, I looked forward to the opportunity to rededicate myself to this way of being. Despite my best intentions, I remained quite dissatisfied with my persistent meanness and littleness. Often imagining myself as a sour lemon drop, my own mouth puckered when I recollected the rapid-fire judgments and preconceptions that came to me so unbidden and automatically. I loathed the way I was so quick to complain and how easily I became just another contributor to the cynical, negative griping that permeated my workplace.

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

~ St. Thérèse of Lisieux

After returning from my brief vacation about two weeks ago, I also began to notice an increase in my self-criticism, my rigidity, and my perfectionistic striving. I wasn’t sure when it started, though I suspected the change commenced at least several months ago. Discouraged, I attempted to treat myself gently, recognizing that further criticism and frustration would only perpetuate the cycle. However, I was a little depressed. What happened to the self-compassion that I so carefully nurtured in my early recovery? There was a time when I repeated these words every time I stepped out my front door:  “Today, I’m cultivating imperfection!” Somewhere along the way, my heart forgot a fundamental realization that made my recovery possible. My head knew the truth, but I lost the significance and the implication of what follows:  God loves me not because of who I am, not because of my accomplishments or efforts, not even because of my potential, but because God IS love. God’s love for me is absolutely independent of my actions, or even my beliefs. All I need is to LET God love me.

dandelion
dandelion,” © Jason (own work), July 2009. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

“When we’re accepting of our own idiosyncrasies, we become more accepting of others… If I feel humble and loving toward myself as I walk out the door, in spite of my flaws, I’ll greet others with a soft smile.”

~ Christopher K. Germer, PhD, The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion

Of course, being a hard worker, I threw all my strength and energy into the endeavor of salvaging my skills. If there was one thing I was ever good at, it was making lists. I scrambled to pinpoint ALL of my weaknesses and enumerated specific methods to rectify each one. However, identifying my “problems” only pitched me into increasing desperation and intensified rigidity. I told myself that I was a failure for my inability to maintain my coping skills and healthy thinking. I failed to read enough, write enough, live wholeheartedly, adhere to a consistent schedule of sleep, attend enough yoga classes, drink enough water, swim enough, walk enough, pray enough, use my DBT workbook enough… I couldn’t do anything right. Then, one afternoon, during a conversation with my pastor, self-awareness slowly creeped upon me. I… AM… BEING… SO… FREAKING… HARD… ON… MYSELF. I am so quick to feel persecuted and unfairly treated by others or by fate, but it is I who treat myself the most mercilessly.

At precisely 9 am, every Tuesday through Friday morning, all the decision-makers from each branch of my organization come together to brief each other… and to share “constructive” criticism. Though my office environment is very flexible, and I count my closest colleagues among my supportive friends, many of the people who gather around the conference table on these mornings rely (unconsciously, I’m certain) on those coping skills that shift pain, discomfort, and intolerance onto others – shaming, judging, and scapegoating.

When I first returned from partial hospitalization for my eating disorder, the thought of stepping back into that room evoked panic. During treatment, I discovered a fragile, precious soul under all of that hate, anger, self-loathing, numbing, helplessness, blame, and fear. Like a tender, spring bud pushing up through loose earth, I felt exquisitely vulnerable to the crushing, bitter negativity of the people around me. Fortunately, with the passage of time and regular practices of mindfulness, acceptance, and dialectics, that tiny shoot sprouted a few, delicate roots. I experimented with different ways of interpreting what transpired during our meetings as I attempted to understand circumstances from as many perspectives as possible. In my better moments, I sought countless ways to give others the benefit of the doubt. These mornings became an opportunity for me to exercise my dialectical behavioral skills, to observe, to describe, to explore my cognitive and emotional reactions, and to seek for the shared humanity that existed between all of us, but as I gradually grew stronger and more adept at navigating the world around me, my sensitivity to my ongoing need for these skills waned.

“I know now that true charity consists in bearing all our neighbours’ defects – not being surprised at their weakness, but edified at their smallest virtues.”

~ St. Thérèse of Lisieux

The morning following my conversation with my pastor, I walked into the sterile, gray-walled conference room, found my usual seat, and began scanning the many faces around me. As I settled into the moment, opening my ears to the soft, whooshing drone of the ventilation system and the gravelly, deep, methodic voice of the particular department chair who happened to be speaking, I made a rather sudden and spontaneous decision. To every meeting, I carried with me a small, spiral-bound notebook in which I recorded any thoughts, emotions, or reactions that I might need to process. Only a few pages remained in the pad that lay before me. Curiously but hesitantly, I fluttered the pages backward until I arrived at the very beginning, written precisely eleven months earlier. As I listened quietly to the relatively bland conversation unfolding around me, I skimmed my notes from July 2015 for the first time since putting them down in tiny, neat cursive. In a matter of mere seconds, my eye glancing from one line to the next, a pattern swiftly emerged. I WAS so freaking hard on myself.

There was no gradual loss of self-compassion. I never ceased treating myself kindly. The reality was that I never exercised much self-compassion, ever. For me, self-compassion was always a struggle. A year ago, the triggers for my inwardly-directed criticism were different, and I was hyper-attentive to an alternate spectrum of shortcomings. Yet, I was just as unwilling to accept imperfection in myself then as I feared I was now. A tiny slip-up provoked an equally self-blaming, self-paining response.

Which leads me to… ACCEPTANCE. Being kind is always going to be a challenge for me. That is just the way it is. That is just the way I am. There will be no rapid undoing after thirty-two years of the same strict, uncompromising, results-oriented, utilitarian, un-empathetic messages. What I received from my parents in childhood became my core beliefs about myself and the world, and from there, my inner voice springs. I can change it. I am already rewiring my brain. But slips and setbacks will happen. Perhaps the kindest gift I can give myself today is to accept that I am going to say and do nasty things, I will vent anger, frustration, impatience, and hurt onto others, and there is a very good possibility that rigidity and perfectionism will remain my stumbling blocks until the day I die, even if I live to be 100. Even if I live to be 120. Rather than treat myself severely and unforgivingly each time I catch myself thinking or behaving in these ways, maybe I can just accept my weakness with humility, and try again.

“Self-compassion can seem quite elusive at times, but since the wish to be happy and free from suffering is innate, it can’t be ignored forever; some measure of success is virtually guaranteed.”

~ Christopher K. Germer, PhD, The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion

imperfect complex
imperfect, complex,” © nosha (own work), Sep 2008. CC BY-SA 2.0. (license)

The Three Day Quote Challenge, Day Two

Featured Image: “Mother Teresa,” © Troy (own work), July 2012. CC BY-SA 2.0. (license)

One of the people who inspires me beyond measure is Blessed Mother Teresa. It is hard to look upon her example without feeling inadequate and unworthy, but my authentic heart tells me that my inwardly-directed guilt and shame are contrary to her message and her great love. When I begin to think that I am not doing enough with my life or the resources with which I’m blessed, the words of this saintly woman show me mercy and encourage me to deeper faith. Stretching my comfort zone is supposed to sting, but I am reminded to be patient with myself and to begin again in my own little way of kindness.

“I would rather make mistakes in kindness and compassion than work miracles in unkindness and hardness.”

~ Blessed Mother Teresa

“We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.”

~ Blessed Mother Teresa

“The greatest disease in the West today is not TB or leprosy; it is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for. We can cure physical diseases with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness, despair, and hopelessness is love. There are many in the world who are dying for a piece of bread but there are many more dying for a little love. The poverty in the West is a different kind of poverty – it is not only a poverty of loneliness but also of spirituality. There’s a hunger for love, as there is a hunger for God.”

~ Blessed Mother Teresa

Today’s nominees…

The rules are pretty simple.

  1. Three days
  2. Three quotes per day
  3. Three nominations per day

Thanks for reading my post, and please check out these other great blogs! ♥

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

 

Three-Day Quote Challenge – The Last Day

Featured Image: “Misadventures,” © Michael Yan, Jan 2012. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Thank you, Jenny, for nominating me for this challenge. I thoroughly enjoyed thumbing through all of my favorite quotes, and it was tremendously difficult to settle on a choice few. I would like to leave off with these last words of encouragement…

“I plead with you – never, ever give up on hope, never doubt, never tire, and never become discouraged. Be not afraid.”

 “We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures, we are the sum of the Father’s love for us and our real capacity to become the image of his son, Jesus.”

 ~ St. Pope John Paul II

And now, for my nominations…

Nominees, if you’d like to participate, here are the rules:

  1. Post for three consecutive days
  2. Posts can be one or three quotes per day
  3. Nominate three different blogs per day

Here are my nominees. Each one writes a marvelous blog, and I hope that you will check them out. I hope that they all participate, because I have an inkling they would choose some fabulous quotes!

Thank you to all of you who are reading! Until next time… ♥

 

Wonderland

Featured Image: “Joy of Rain,” © Bindaas Madhavi, Aug 2009. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

What is best in life? This is a question I used to ask myself frequently when I was first learning how to not engage my disordered eating behaviors. When the impulsive, compulsive thoughts pummeled me like hurricane-strength waves against a worn, ocean levee, I would ask myself for what it was that I resisted.

There was a time when living life well, to me, meant having it all. I slaved hard for the job that everyone stood in awe of, and it wasn’t worth doing if I wasn’t giving 200%. I needed to be working harder and longer than everybody else. If it didn’t hurt, I wasn’t sacrificing enough of myself; I was lazy and sloppy and average. I needed the perfect house, perfect car, perfect clothes, perfect diet, and perfect body. It wasn’t enough that I ran to stay in shape; I ran until it hurt. I entered races, and I made sure that I was a competitor, whittling down my mile splits as I whittled down my waist and whittled away at the foods I would allow myself to eat (read here for more about my struggle with orthorexia). If there was an element of my life that didn’t fit into the perfect image that I tried to project of myself, such as my binge eating disorder, I denied it, minimized it, buried it, rationalized it, disassociated from it, did whatever I could to get rid of it, while shaming and berating myself for my weakness and promising that I would work harder. I was a woman at war not only with the world and everyone else occupying it, I was a woman at war with herself. And I was miserable.

"Prison Textures and Shadows," © Bob Jagendorf, Dec 2010. CC-BY-NC 2.0.
Prison Textures and Shadows,” © Bob Jagendorf, Dec 2010. CC-BY-NC 2.0.

What good was the job, the car, the clothes, the body, the trophies and accolades, when I was depressed, anxious, suicidal, and sinking into binges so severe every night that I was terrified I was going to die if I didn’t kill myself first? Perhaps it seems intuitive to a healthy person or to someone who never struggled with an eating disorder or mental illness, but it took quite a while before I was finally able to recognize, really, truly, and with my whole heart, that this idea of perfection I created for myself was not worth the price I was paying. It didn’t happen quickly or suddenly. It was a gradual realization, and it grew from repeatedly asking myself, What is best in life?

"Wave Breaking Over Sea Wall," © Bill Gracey, Jan 2015. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
Wave Breaking Over Sea Wall,” © Bill Gracey, Jan 2015. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

It is three days before Halloween. I am sitting on the rubberized gym floor of the preschool that Alice’s kids attend. Elliot is huddled shoulder-to-shoulder with the other four-year-olds in front of the small, folding table at the front of the little, square room. They are all completely oblivious to the fact that they are now well beyond the line of tape that marks the “do not cross!” point that they are supposed to stay behind. With each simple magic trick, they squeal with delight, bounce up and down, and scooch forward. I am struck by the idea that a middle-aged adult would spend his evenings performing magic shows for preschoolers. He pulls out a giant pair of wooden scissors as big as some of the children and asks who would like to try to cut the magic rope. They encroach even further, erupting into excited shrieks as two dozen hands shoot into the air, fingers stretched to their maximum length.

Behind this line of miniature, jostling bodies, the littler siblings are carelessly wheeling through the wide, empty space of the remaining gymnasium. Penny, who is two, runs loopy circles around and around until she falls onto her bottom, and then stands up to repeat the same pattern. Around and around and down. She never cries, never looks distressed, and never tires. She is completely oblivious to whether or not she might hurt herself, bump her head, or run into another kid who is careening in the opposite direction. Every so often, she trundles over in my direction, flops into my lap, and practices her new favorite word, “Wuwu! Wuwu! Wuwu!” she echoes as she points at me. As if to emphasize how proud she is of learning names, she occasionally points to her brother or mother and throws in an, “Ewiot, Mama.” Something inside my chest twists up in knots and climbs into my throat.

The magic show comes to an end, and Elliot races eagerly to find Alice and me. “Did you like the magic show?” Alice asks as she tries to wriggle him into his jacket.

“Yeah!” he exclaims, as he jostles against her legs.

“What was your favorite part?” she persists.

“When Lulu came!” he declares.

I choke again.

The weekend will include walks to the park under a brilliantly blue sky, the autumn sun sparkling through the golden and fiery New England leaves. The air will feel crisp and clean while the kids ride bikes and go down the “big” slide. Elliot will insist that his grandmother drive to the craft store so that he can buy beads to make me a necklace that I am never to take off. He will request that I give him his bath and watch his favorite cartoons with him, his itty, warm body curled into the hollow under my arm like a living furnace. For the next three days he will ask, “Is it time to go trick-or-treating yet?”

Penny will throw a monumental fit when it is time for her bath, as she does anytime her head is wetted. She will scream until her face is mottled and snot is streaming from her nose, but within thirty minutes of being wrapped in her soft, velvety robe, she will be calmly nestled on her mother’s lap with a stuffed animal and a book. Elliot will whack his head against the arm of the couch playing ring-around-the-rosy not an hour before trick-or-treating begins, which will precipitate a meltdown, which will be completely forgotten once he is in his monster costume with a flashlight in his hand. His mom, dad, and I will take turns pulling him and his sister around the cul-de-sac in their red wagon when they are too tired to walk home, and then, clustered around the kitchen table, they will dump the spoils of their treat bags on the table, less interested in the M&M’s and Snickers bars than in the experience of the evening.

What is health? What is happiness? What does it mean to live a full, vibrant, wholehearted existence? What does it mean to love and to be loved? What does it mean to be fully alive? What is best in life? What is that worth?

"Old Sturbridge Village - Sturbridge," © Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism, Dec 2013. CC BY-ND 2.0.
Old Sturbridge Village – Sturbridge,” © Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism, Dec 2013. CC BY-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.