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.”
“What is the reason that you don’t want to attend this wedding?” Kelly queried from across her desk during my nutrition appointment several weeks ago. “Are you avoiding a social situation because you don’t want to face the food aspect of it?”
The idea that she thought it likely that, after two years of recovery, I remained so dreadfully afraid of eating in situations beyond my control that I would avoid them entirely caught me by surprise. My shocked reply was genuine. “No!” I exclaimed. “Not at all! I don’t want to go because the trip itself is going to suck, and I’m going to come back exhausted and feeling like shit.” As I spoke, I recognized the alarming nature of these predictions, and for an instant, I wondered if they were the result of my catastrophic, all-or-nothing thinking. It didn’t take long for me to conclude based on past experience and knowledge of my itinerary that there was sufficient evidence to support the prognostication. Departing Friday at noon, I would fly west to catch a connecting flight to the east coast, spend one night at my parents’ house, then drive an hour north. On Saturday, I would attend a wedding that was not scheduled to begin until 6 pm, and then I would awake at the crack of dawn the next morning so that I could drive another hour back to the airport to rush onto the only plane departing westward on a route that would return me to Vanillasville before midnight. After logging 10,892 airline miles already this year alone, I was practiced enough to know that I would be utterly drained, and familiar with myself enough to appreciate how much of a toll that physical and emotional depletion would truly exact from me. I was utterly dreading the trip. Yet, the tickets were purchased, the rental car booked, the hotel room reserved, and my RSVP was in the mail.
It seemed that there were certain events in life that demanded a choice. What type of person was I? Who did I want to be? This wedding was one of those occasions, and I was going to show up and be present. Period. No matter what. End of story.
Alexandra, Greg, and I were in college together. For four years, we studied together, endured together, celebrated together, and grew to approximate adults just a bit more closely together. Finally, we graduated together, and from that day, we continued to show up for each other at those major life events, despite being scattered to different corners of the globe. When Alexandra married George, we were both there, though it required Greg crossing multiple continents to be at their wedding. When I completed a grueling second degree, they were both there, though Alexandra and George were in the middle of moving halfway across the country. During those first, sleepless weeks after Alexandra’s daughter was born, I was there to keep her company and offer what little emotional support I could, though by that time, I was struggling desperately to cope with my own eating disorder. When I fell seriously ill with colitis, Greg was actually living in Vanillasville and working on his master’s. Though we didn’t see much of each other or speak very often, he was the one who brought me to my colonoscopy and drove me home when there was nobody else for me to call.
There was no doubt that I was less than enthusiastic about sitting on four planes, traipsing through six airports, and transiting more than 2,000 miles in order to spend a few hours at a wedding where I would know precisely three people, including the groom. Neither Alexandra, George, nor I ever met Greg’s fiancé prior to the reception, nor did we know his family, nor were any of our other college friends going to be in attendance. Yet, I was going, and so were they. Though the last time Greg and I spoke was probably a year before, I could not imagine an excuse worthy of keeping me from being present for my friend at his wedding.
As the day of my departure neared, I prepared myself with stoic resolve. I was genuinely excited to see Alexandra for the first time since spring, but I was steeling myself with realistic expectations. There would be joy in spending time with my friends, and the wedding would be a jubilant occasion, but I knew full well that it would be a trying weekend, and it was not because of the food. A single “off-nominal” meal did not give me palpitations. Considering where I started two years ago, the ease that I felt about the dinner was alone worthy of celebration. However, the greater victory for me was my resigned acceptance of reality. I dreaded how depleted I would feel as I dragged myself out of bed on Sunday morning, and I recalled how crummy it was to endure a full day of traveling with barely any physical, mental, or emotional reserve. Yet, I would survive. The sole reason that I was able to forecast these predictions was because it would not be the first time I stretched myself so thin, and it would not be the last. Been there. Done that. The travel would not be fun, but the world would keep turning, and I would be fine.
Without building up fanciful dreams of what would be and without overly dramatizing the challenges I would face, I set off. “It is what it is,” I told myself when my connecting flight was delayed. “I was ready for this,” I told myself when I walked through the doors of the only motel in the tiny town and discovered the place decorated with mystery stains and reeking of tobacco. After a few rounds of deep breathing, I decided that I really would not be able to sleep if I remained there, and I settled on my plan B – driving the hour back to my parents’ house after the reception ended and leaving from there for the airport in the morning. When dinner wasn’t served until 9 pm, I wasn’t fazed, though my heart did skip a few beats when the waiter brought us each a tiny plate of ravioli before serving the salads. “Where are the vegetables?” I bemoaned to Alexandra and George while reminding myself that it was just one meal, and telling myself that three raviolis would not harm me. The night was not about me, and I wasn’t there in search of fun and enjoyment. I was there to be present and to support a friend. So, when the music began and nobody rose from their tables, Alexandra and I didn’t hesitate to awkwardly and conspicuously dance alone through the excruciating length of an entire song, until two, then two more, then gradually many others joined us on the floor.
In the end, it was a lovely time. The night was imperfect, and that was ok. It was a delight to see Greg so happy, and Alexandra, George, and I relished each other’s company for the evening. I accepted all the elements that were beyond my control without resistance or anxiety, I adapted to every hiccup and snafu, including nearly missing my return flight on Sunday morning. I was thankful for every moment of grace and for every small consolation. It took me an entire week to rebound, and I wound up leaving work sick on Tuesday, but ultimately I managed to recover my sleep and my sense of wellbeing. Through it all, I proved to myself that I was capable, not of physical endurance, but of mental flexibility and emotional regulation. I demonstrated to myself that I could be loyal and place others first, while maintaining a healthy sense of boundaries and remaining aware of my own needs. Finally, I found myself humbled with gratitude for the strength of the connections that united us all. Relationships worth undertaking such a journey were the greatest gifts of all.
“[E]very time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state of the other.”
An extrovert trying to be an introvert to avoid being hurt… that was how my first therapist described me. Isolation and feelings of loneliness were always sources of pain for me. Exploring my need to be in the company of other people and embracing the discomfort and uncertainty inherent in the swampland of forging personal connections was a first beyond the entrenched cognitive-behavioral-emotional loops of my chronic depression. Reengaging with old friends and building new relationships were dramatic shifts outside of my comfort zone, and these efforts were challenging enough. At a time when I was also waging a pitched war for my life against binge eating disorder, the fact that many (perhaps most) social situations involved food only heightened the drama. My recovery from my depression and my eating disorder were too interdependent to be dissected apart. As I battled on, my friend Amelia was a close ally on both fronts. We fell into a routine of meeting up after work every few weeks for dinner, making our way through a circuit of the best local restaurants in our little area. Over seltzer with lime and decaf black coffee, we shared all the details of our lives, from the most mundane to the deepest and most heartfelt. Each meal was anticipated with delight as an opportunity to be genuine and authentic for a few hours. In the comfortable cocoon of merry conversation, I grew increasingly resilient as I coped with one menu and then the next.
In April, Amelia accepted an offer of a new position and relocated to a city five hours away. It was a long-expected move, and there was nothing sudden about it. I was excited for her, and I was prepared for the change, but there was a difference between predicting loneliness and then actually feeling it. Over the summer, I continued to travel frequently, remained involved in all of my meaningful activities, and maintained my connections with all of my long-distance friends. Yet… I spent much of my time alone. It didn’t always feel like loneliness. I remained connected and I didn’t dwell in any sense of isolation or entertain self-pity. However, every once in a while, I felt the definitive absence of my friends. At times, my therapist and I spoke about the subject, but we never arrived at any useful conclusions. I continued to participate in yoga, I lingered after mass each Sunday to chat with my casual acquaintances from my parish, and, every so often, I went out to lunch with some of my coworkers. None of those fleeting connections filled the empty space in my heart that longed for a kindred spirit.
It was a Friday afternoon a few weeks ago, and I was leaving work in just such a state. I was at the nadir of a several-day funk, and I was not looking forward to a solitary weekend. My mood was low and my anxiety was piqued, triggered by automatic, alarming, all-or-nothing type thoughts about an upcoming professional conference and all the logistics of another trip. To an entirely new city. Alone.
My phone buzzed, and a lengthy text message popped onto the screen. It was Amelia! “Pete and I are headed your way for the weekend! There’s a cycling convention in town. I know it’s last minute, but we’re going out for dinner at Giovanni’s on Saturday night if you want to come. Let me know!” Amelia was returning at precisely the moment it seemed that I needed her most! My heart perked, but my head reeled at the name of the restaurant. Giovanni’s was decidedly unsafe.
“Lord, you have probed me, you know me: / you know when I sit and stand; / you understand my thoughts from afar. / You sift through my travels and my rest; / with all my ways you are familiar. / Even before a word is on my tongue, / Lord, you know it all. / You formed my inmost being; / You knit me in my mother’s womb. / My very self you know.”
~ Psalm 139:1b-4,13,14b
Competing ideas zipped into my consciousness. “No,” was a prominent voice. “No” to the menu, “no” to the restaurant, and “no” to everything that they both represented to me. Giovanni’s exemplified everything that I found repugnant in American food culture. It was about as far from authentically Italian as one could possibly find. The fare was entirely Midwestern American, featuring pasta with a side of bread, served with meatballs, sausage, salami, and pepperoni, heavily doused with cheese, cream sauces, and more cheese, and served with a garnish of tomato sauce. The three salads on the menu consisted mainly of iceberg lettuce, croutons, and, you guessed it, more cheese. The only entrée that included a vegetable was fried eggplant parmesan. There weren’t even any vegetable sides offered.
Against these objections, I also heard myself stating a decisive, “Yes.” My memory of a recent appointment with my dietician resonated, and I couldn’t escape the echoed repetitions of Kelly’s voice, “You may not skip social things because of food.” I was grateful for her clear, direct manner, which left little room for quibbling. “Yes” to Kelly, “yes” to Amelia, and “yes” to connection, friendship, and wholeheartedness. I couldn’t conceive how I would manage the menu, but there was little utility in obsessing over it. Reading and rereading the descriptions of the unappealing choices would not alter them or make them more acceptable. Memorizing every deplorable detail would only make me more anxious. I admitted to myself that there were no safe choices; I replied to Amelia that I was not in the least bit comfortable with the restaurant; and I expressed my tremendous joy at the prospect of seeing her again, committing myself, for better or worse, to whatever this dinner entailed. Decision made, I settled into waiting with a combination of exuberance and resigned acceptance.
As afternoon succeeded morning on Saturday, a familiar exchange revolved through my head. Yes/no. Excitement/acceptance. Tranquility/anxiety. Amelia and Pete were at their cycling convention, and I awaited their word on a dinner time. It wasn’t until 3:30pm that I heard from them. Could I meet at the restaurant in two hours? Typically, 5:30pm would be “way too early” for me to eat, especially given the typical later timing of my weekend lunch. However, on this particular Saturday, I was grateful that the short notice left me little interval for pre-planning, advance calculations, or ruminations. Still in yoga tights and looking a teensy bit too disheveled for a sit-down meal, even at the most casual of places like Giovanni’s, my main concern was making myself presentable and getting across town in under 120 minutes.
When I arrived (only 10 minutes late – which is just on time for me!), I was so flooded with the excitement of seeing my beloved friend that I could barely focus on anything else. It was impossible to read a menu and survey all the sights and sounds of my new environment while maintaining the bubbling flow of conversation that gushed forth the instant Amelia and I reunited. I tripped my way to the table, so distracted I was peering over my shoulder in an attempt to keep her in sight, as words tumbled out in all directions from both sides. It was after the waitress paused at our table for the third time to take our orders that I concluded it was time to settle into dedicated concentration for the task at hand – to hobble together some sort of manageable compromise from a truly abysmal list of choices.
“It is just one day.”
“It is just one meal.”
“It is not going to kill me.”
“I can do this.”
When the pleasant waitress returned once more, I smiled sweetly and asked innocently, “Do you have any side vegetable dishes?” I fully expected her negative answer, but I wasn’t yet discouraged or dissuaded. “Do you have any vegetables?” I asked in my most saccharine way. Like, at all? Like, in the entire restaurant? Like, could you go to the grocery store and buy me a carrot?
She twisted one corner of her mouth and scrunched her nose as if she was racking her brain. “You know what, let me check,” she responded kindly. I tried not to be too appalled that it seemed like such a bizarre, foreign idea that a patron would want to eat a vegetable with her dinner. A few moments later, she returned triumphantly with the answer: there were spinach and red peppers in the kitchen.
“Perfect!” I internally rejoiced. I asked her if it would be too much trouble to steam some spinach for me. She offered to sauté it. I asked her to sauté it lightly, ordered the grilled chicken with pasta and pesto, and said a little prayer under my breath that my meal wouldn’t arrive at the table swimming in oil. “It’s out of my control now,” I told myself as I settled back into the rhythm of conversation, happy, content, acquiescent, pleased, relaxed, and willing.
“It is just one day.”
“It is just one meal.”
“It is not going to kill me.”
“I can do this.”
It would be a lie if I denied that I was unconcerned about gaining weight. Those thoughts were present. I was upset and disturbed by the food selection and by the relationships with food and eating behaviors reflected around me. However, in a moment when I was faced with a choice to isolate within the safe, protective shell of my eating disorder or turn all of my self-protective instincts upside down, I committed to the uncertain path, and I forged ahead without wavering. It felt risky, it felt reckless, and it felt real. In a less-than-ideal situation, I did better than cope. It felt like progress.
“I am not absent-minded. It is the presence of the mind that makes me unaware of everything else.”
~ G.K. Chesterton
In my imagination, there is an ideal of what it would mean to be perfectly mindful. There is a notion, a concept, of always being in the present – fully aware of what is going on around me, fully conscious, awake, and attentive to my external environment and my internal thoughts and emotions. My therapist tries to tell me that to be always mindful would not be mindful, but that makes little sense to me. As I gradually make my way through my book on mindful self-compassion, I draw encouragement from learning that the moment we become aware that we are not being mindful, we become mindful. (I know that I’ve been writing about this same book for months. I’m a slow reader, okay! It also doesn’t help that I jump from one book to another, then onto a third, then back to the first).
One afternoon, last weekend, I set out for an autumn bike ride along the paved trails near my house.
The fall is one of my favorite seasons, and it always stirs up some very strong memories and emotions. They swirl together fluidly, making it impossible to follow a linear ribbon of thought or recollection. Light and dark, faces and names, places and ideas, happiness, joy, gratitude, nostalgia, pain, loss, guilt, delight, sorrow, shame, laughter, tears… they all mix together like so many disparate ingredients poured into one giant bowl. Flour, sugar, eggs, and milk form a smooth batter, never to be constituent parts again, but richer for their joining.
My mind was fluttering with activity as I pedaled along the tree-lined paths, legs pumping, lungs heaving, and heart nearly bursting with all the glory of that autumn afternoon. When I returned to my apartment, I was in danger of falling into self-criticism for being so mindless. Though I did notice the sparkling rays of the setting sun, the fresh current of the air, and the smell of damp earth, I could not deny that I was largely preoccupied during my ride. As I stretched my sore quads, I turned on the television to a biopic of G.K. Chesterton. Not knowing much about this British author, I continued to watch, and I found myself presented with the above quote. It gave me pause for deeper consideration.
Perhaps there is more to this practice of mindfulness than I am allowing.
“I need to figure out an alternative vacation strategy,” I told Melanie, my therapist, as I left her office. It was a mere two days following my return from my last trip. My autumn “vacation” was actually just a week spent lazing around my parents’ house and puttering about my hometown. After too long in the same routine, I was exhausted and harried. Like hardening cement, I was becoming increasingly rigid and fixed in my routines. The detrimental effect on my thoughts only further amplified the tension, inflexibility, and negativity that manifested in my speech and behavior. I told myself that removing myself from that environment would be the respite that I needed.
During my break, I practiced at one of my favorite yoga studios, went swimming and biking, caught up with a couple of my close friends from childhood and college, and wiled away hours on some of my favorite activities – reading and writing. My week was not as idyllic as it might sound, however. At home, triggers abounded, worsemed by my parents’ recent retirement in July. My reactions were complicated, but they were mostly averse. Fortunately, my coping skills were sufficient to keep me from any major outbursts or meltdowns, but the hostility that I swallowed and bottled inside me was toxic. I came back to Vanillasville with an intense self-loathing. During my week at home, my hatred for myself and my body reached a level that I last experienced before my partial hospitalization for my eating disorder. I returned with a desire to restrict to the point of losing a substantial amount of weight.
One of the underlying messages that permeated my conscious (and likely my subconscious) thoughts was a consistent monologue of variations on, “I hate myself. I’m a failure.” I told myself that my stay with my parents was worthless, a waste of my vacation days, and a direct manifestation of my fear and laziness. Planning a real vacation would mean confronting some nasty demons in my closet, and I felt helplessly frustrated by my paralysis before that closed door. All because of FEAR.
“That’s a workable problem,” Melanie told me on Tuesday. “We can address that.” I smiled as I pulled my bag over my shoulder and reached for the doorknob. I wasn’t convinced. She didn’t know the whole truth behind my avoidance. After delaying for over a year, I finally renewed my passport last December. I picked a destination and bought a Paris guidebook. As winter gave way to spring and then summer, I found one reason after another to push back my nascent plans. “It just isn’t the right time. I’ll get to it after I adjust to this new project at work. It doesn’t make any sense to start planning before I find someone who will travel with me. It will happen when it happens. I don’t need to be in a hurry.” With nothing more than an idea and a Rick Steves guide, I was stalled.
The day after my conversation with Melanie, I met with Kelly, my nutritionist. Together, we processed the events of my “vacation,” the meals I ate, my obsession with desserts, and my marriage to my meal plan. Once more, she informed me that my weight was stable, and, once more, I told her that she must be lying.
Last month, Kelly showed me a book on mindful eating that she thought would be helpful for me to read, and I replied, “I don’t think I’m ready for that yet.” It took a desperate leap of faith for me to trust my first dietician enough to risk my life on my current meal plan. When every other attempt I made to recover from my binge eating disorder failed, I found my rock bottom, which was someplace between insanity and suicide. From that place, there was nothing more to lose, and I finally chanced moving beyond my severely restrictive orthorexia.
“You still won’t you trust yourself with food,” Kelly pointed out… again. She likes to remind me that, despite all the ups and downs I experienced leaving Walden, returning to Vanillasville, resuming work, and coping with the upheavals of a (semi)-engaged life, my last binge was in November 2014. Yet, I return to the fact that I achieved my current stability with the safety-net of my meal plan. Abandoning my measuring cups, countertop scales, and precisely tabulated and proportioned exchanges would mean risking everything I worked so hard to build over the past 22 months.
“I don’t deserve to be trusted!” I wanted to shout. I felt like reaching across the desk between us and shaking her by the shoulders for further emphasis. “I can’t eat mindfully. I CAN’T do it! It will all fall apart. It will be just like it was before – before my eating disorder, when I was heavy, and I ate too much all the time, and I didn’t care, and I just ate whatever because it tasted good, and it was there. And I’ll feel sick all the time like I did, and have no energy, and I WILL GAIN WEIGHT.” I was thinking of middle school, high school, college, and graduate school, when I didn’t eat mindfully, used food for a host of other purposes beyond nurturing my body, and was engaged in some seriously unhealthy habits. Finally, I admitted out loud, “I don’t want to gain weight. I am still obsessed with not gaining weight.”
Amazingly, Kelly didn’t care. “I’d be worried if you were consistently telling me that you thought you needed to lose weight and that you weighed too much, but it’s not an unhealthy thing to want to maintain a healthy weight.” Her unexpected reaction caught me entirely off guard. I was prepared for another conversation about why weight didn’t matter, but instead, she emphasized that maintaining my healthy weight did matter to her just as much as it mattered to me. After experiencing a week of so much invalidation, Kelly left me speechless.
There was more. Kelly continued, “If you really want to go to Paris, then you need to be able to walk into a Panera, order a side baguette, and eat it.” Uncontrollably, I burst into a genuine fit of laughter. The idea was so preposterous that it was outright comical. There was no way I would ever voluntarily eat a giant chunk of white bread, particularly considering that the local Panera café, conveniently located directly along my commute, was previously a major source of binge-food during the darkest periods of my disorder. “Well,” sighed Kelly, “at least don’t avoid any social situations because of the food this week,” she charged me. “Done,” I thought. At this point in my recovery, such an instruction was hardly a challenge.
Here’s the thing. I want to go to Paris. Here’s the other thing. I’m kind of an over-achiever, with a bit of a competitive streak, I’m meticulous about following directions, I’m an insufferable people-pleaser, and I don’t back down from a fight. Those attributes are part of the temperament that predispose to the development of an eating disorder in the first place, but they are also the traits that empower recovery. So, what does a scrappy, rule-following, over-achieving, approval-and-reward-dependent, recovering orthorexic binge-eater do when confronted with an eat-a-baguette challenge?
Last Saturday, I declared a “Challenge Snack Day,” and I decided to eat Kelly’s baguette in what I imagined to be true Parisian fashion. “Kelly,” I said to myself, “I am seeing your baguette, and I am raising you a pad of butter and a cappuccino. So there! You knew I would do it, didn’t you?” It was a rare treat to allow myself butter, and it was only my second cappuccino in the past two years, though I admitted that both were foods that delighted me in small and occasional portions. The mindfulness continued into the afternoon, when I scaled down the size of my lunch by one dairy serving to balance the extra frothy milk and espresso that I sipped slowly with my earlier snack.
Something tells me that sticking your face directly into your mug to loudly slurp your delicious foam is frowned upon by the French. I suppose that in the future, I will need to make some compromises in the interest of polite decorum. There is still a long, long way to go, and I am still unsure and distrustful, but I hope that it won’t be like it was “before.”
“In the course of a lifetime, what does it matter?”
~ Sharon Creech, Walk Two Moons
When I read this book, I was probably about twelve, and I forgot the majority of the plot long ago. But, when I was at Walden, I was reminded of these words by another patient. It was one of the quotations that helped keep her afloat during her intense battle against anorexia.
While I still don’t remember much about the story, I now carry this single sentence in my heart. It is slipping back into my consciousness today, as I return to work after a restful week of visiting family. Though there is much catching up to do, I am able to fluidly transition from one task to the next, without taking myself or the demands of my job and my day-to-day life too seriously. “How long will it be before I start growing anxious and frustrated again?” I wonder. “How long will it be before I start telling myself that all of the too-many-things I squeeze into my schedule are necessary?”
Last night, as I was about to climb into bed, it occurred to me, “It is going to be a long life. In the whole, long course of my life, does [it] really matter?” Pondering this idea for a moment, I remembered that gentleness applies not only to how I act and speak to others, but also how I think, and how I talk to myself. Then, I thought, “…and if I don’t live a long life, and I die tomorrow, or next month, or next year, [it] really won’t matter!” I smiled. The though was more comforting than morbid. I felt silly for being anxious and worried about so many insignificant concerns.
Today, I can’t even recall precisely what last night’s [it] was. Most likely, [it] was some dietary indiscretion, a few days without exercise, a few nights of poor sleep, or some other perceived imperfection, but the plain fact that I don’t specifically remember demonstrates just how irrelevant these few dropped notes are in the grand symphony of the universe. Am I living up to my values? What are those values? When I stop to reflect, I know exactly how I am called to live my life.
“Then he said to all, ‘If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. What profit is there for one to gain the whole world yet lose or forfeit himself?’”
The cross is the sacrifice of self-giving love. It is the call to die to my own egocentrism, patiently bear the trials and tribulations of life, trusting God, loving always, seeking the little way. Am I choosing this path each day, each moment? Because, in the course of a lifetime, that is all that matters.
“Well, I still need to take a shower, and I need to wash and blow-dry my hair…” confessed Rachel. I glanced at the clock on the car dash. It was 11am on a Sunday morning, and I was home in Connecticut for a visit. As I wound my way over back roads to the nearby mall to find a Star Wars-themed gift for one of my favorite four-going-on-five year olds, I was also attempting to make plans with my oldest friend. A nearby thrift store was holding a 50% off Labor Day Weekend sale, and she was itching to rummage through its racks. I wanted to scope out the fall selections at one of my favorite clothing shops. In my bag, I was toting a lone granola bar for my mid-morning snack, but that would quickly be eaten. Soon, the lunch hour would be upon us…
“Take whatever time you need!” I cheerfully told her. “We’ll figure something out!” We arranged to meet at a convenient bookstore. Immediately, I ended the call and dialed my sister-in-law. “Quick! What are some restaurant options near Evergreen where they might serve something we would eat?!”
My parents’ community, like most American suburbs, is dotted with fast-food take-out joints, pizza dives, Chinese restaurants, and a plethora of Burger Kings, McDonalds, Wendy’s, Starbucks, Olive Gardens, Red Robbins, and the like. Part of my eating disorder recovery is mindful eating – paying close attention to flavor, texture, and quality of food, determining my actual likes and dislikes, and choosing foods that are appealing to my appetite and senses, rather than limiting myself to foods that I deem “good” or “bad” based on my very narrow and rigidly defined laws about healthiness (or lack thereof). Some people might label me a snob, but I prefer to see myself as someone who is becoming more aware of how delightful it can be to enjoy an entire dining experience, and I admittedly remain a bit inflexible around the issue of compromising.
Unfortunately, after living away for nearly fifteen years, I am not ready with a list of interesting dining options in the event of impromptu meals out. My sis is a great support when it comes to such challenges. She does not have an eating disorder, but we have somewhat similar culinary preferences – we both favor restaurants with kitchens where a chef prepares your dish from fresh ingredients when you order it, and we are keen on menus offering plentiful choices that aren’t too heavy, fried, creamy, dense, or drowning in sauce. I like my food to be savory and simple, with vegetable sides.
Within a few minutes, I was furnished with the names of three places that were close at hand to the shops. A quick flip of my thumb along the screen of my iPhone brought up their menus, and a casual glance reassured me that I was, indeed, safe. I was able to enjoy a worry-free afternoon with Rachel, without the intrusive distraction of ruminative, anxious thoughts about how I was going to satisfy my lunch needs.
When we finally paused to eat, it wasn’t difficult to settle on the place. The weather was balmy and blissful, and we chose the restaurant with the best outdoor seating. We were led to a table straight away, and our server greeted us with a charming and friendly introduction. My eye fell immediately upon the beet salad, one of my favorite sides. Deciding what to pair it with was a bit more difficult. “Don’t worry,” winked our waiter mischievously. “I won’t let you order an unreasonable amount of food.” He sounded unconvincing.
There were some very reassuring options on the menu, which featured a range of selections from a basic turkey sandwich, to a plain steak with sides, to a light piece of chicken with rice or mashed potatoes and a vegetable. Yet, there were many more interesting descriptions that ignited my curiosity. “What is the Mediterranean chicken with risotto like?” I politely inquired. “Is it heavy? Is it a large portion?” He admitted that it was a bit larger, but my tastebuds were watering. Tomatoes, artichokes, and spinach with pesto, chicken, and… risotto… I decided I would try it. With my beet salad to help fill me up, I could plan to take part of it home for another meal, and if it was unappetizing, it wouldn’t be a total disaster.
Risotto. The last time I could remember eating risotto was nearly six years ago, just as my eating disorder was beginning to manifest. I didn’t exactly recall what it was like, but I remembered the dish being pleasant. “It’s like rice,” I thought. “I eat rice. Rice is ok.” In my mind, the word “Mediterranean” meant “lighter, with olive oil.” I wasn’t prepared for the thick cream sauce that stared back at me when the deliciously aromatic plate was set on the table.
Commenting on the creaminess to Rachel, she gave me a, “Well, yeah. It’s risotto!” response, as if to say, “Duh! What did you think you were ordering?” Remarkably, I didn’t feel my tight knot of anxiety twist in my chest. All I felt was the cool breeze and the fresh air of the sunny afternoon. I took a bite of the chicken, and acknowledged that it tasted good. After devouring the rest of my beets, goat cheese, and arugala, I slowly and methodically explored my entrée. It was good. I could distinguish all of the flavors as I carefully nibbled away at the spinach, tomatoes, artichokes, and chicken. I dabbed the meat in the pesto that ringed the plate. I took tiny bites of the risotto, appreciating the texture and the taste. An errant thought about weight gain flitted across my brain, but I paid little attention to it. Another flutter of an idea about needing to exercise to work off this indulgence passed along without causing any significant distress. When I was at just the right fullness, I put my fork down, and I asked for a box.
As I drove home that afternoon, I puzzled over what transpired during lunch. It seemed like a blip or an anomaly. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. For an hour or so, I relaxed my rules and my firm grasp of control. It occurred to me that to continue my progress in recovery and to fully live my life, I might need to continue practicing this mindful surrendering.
I’m not sure I’m entirely comfortable with this looseness, this fluidity, this unguardedness. I trust my meal plan. I don’t trust myself. “What if mindful eating makes me fat?” I worry… … … What if it doesn’t?
According to science, true perpetual motion is not possible. Those physicists at MIT never met me…
When I was in college, I was in awe of my friends who could sit in near cataplexy for hours upon hours, deep in focused concentration, with towers of books, sheaves of paper, assortments of pencils, pens, and colorful highlighters, and discarded coffee cups piled about them. There were a multitude of cozy, quiet, beautiful little nooks and crannies across our centuries-old campus where a person could nestle away for days of endless study. Yet, within an hour or so of burrowing down into the catacombs of the library stacks or snuggling up beside the massive fireplace in the periodicals room, a stirring would begin to creep through my body. It declared to me, “You’re a failure, you can’t hack it, you’re not as good as the rest, and there is clearly and obviously something abnormal about you, because you can’t sit still for two bloody hours! For crying out loud! GET BACK TO WORK!”
As the clock on the wall continued its tortuous march, the thoughts in my head continued their annoying chatter, filling my mind with fantasies of restroom breaks, the weather, chocolate covered pretzels from the lobby shop in the student center, friends from home, shopping, movies that I loved, movies that I wanted to see, the parties that I wasn’t attending and the life that I wasn’t living while I was slaving over my textbooks day after day, all of my shortcomings and failures, the birds outside the window, my next vacation, anxieties about the future, regrets about the past, curiosities about what every person I knew was doing at that very moment, coupled with assumptions that they were all thriving, self-criticism of my sloppy appearance in my standard study-garb of t-shirt and sweatpants… This cyclic, often distorted stream of consciousness was accompanied by a twitchy, restless energy. There was a kinetic force that just wanted to be released. “Make it go away!” was the subconscious message I sent myself, though my executive center screamed, “Everyone else is working hard! What is wrong with you? Why can’t you sit still?!” (Self-compassion was never one of my strengths.)
If you knew Alice or Margie, you could ask them what it was like to live with me during final exam week. When there was no other outlet for that nervous, impatient, distressing dynamism that flooded my body and irritated my brain, I took up the habit of pacing the countertop of our kitchen peninsula. Sometimes, I stood on tables while I recited biochemical reactions from memory or they quizzed me from my flashcards of Latin declensions. Food offered a release, a distraction, an escape, and a comfort. Everyone needed to eat. I awaited mealtimes with apprehensive eagerness, because they provided a legitimized reason to leave my desk for an hour or so. Self-soothing and escaping difficult emotions by eating when I was not hungry or over-eating were maladaptive coping skills that I already carried with me from my earliest childhood.
A few weeks ago, I was tucked into a corner of my therapist’s couch, recounting a more recent experience of that same intense urgency, which arose during a stressful and busy time at work. When my therapist asked me to describe what I meant, I was ready with a catalog of adjectives. Skittery, jittery, tense, and intense. Fluttery, high-strung, and hyperactive. Agitated, frenzied, and disquieted. Discombobulated. She asked me if this state was always necessarily negative, and her question left me confused. Clearly, I was not using my words effectually. Of course it was negative! When I was caught up in this crazy spiral, I felt like my heart might explode, like electricity was running through my body, like I was literally a live-wire. It was confusing, disorienting, uncomfortable, and distressing, and the result was that I became inefficient and ineffective. All I could think about was making it stop and turning it off. Without binging, there was no physical release. I was left to tolerate the intolerable with coping skills like deep breathing, which felt like whispering into a tornado.
My therapist pressed a bit further, challenging my negative associations. Where did I learn that feeling hyperactive, confused, disoriented, and electric were bad? Could those same adjectives also describe excitement? What about exuberance, joy, enthusiasm, andpositive energy? Then, she suggested something else that I wasn’t ready to hear. What if I was born with a more restless temperament? What if I simply wasn’t created to sit still for eight or ten hours at a stretch? After decades of comparing myself to others, could I accept myself as I was? What if the fact that I was not the sort to sit still and quiet for very long didn’t mean that I was broken, or a failure, or dysfunctional, or bad, or deficient, or weak-willed?
Oh, to know peace and rest in my body and my mind! To simply stop moving and thinking! How I yearn for such stasis! To be able to pass an afternoon with reading, meditation, writing, drawing, or painting seems like it would be bliss, but within fifteen minutes (sometimes more, sometimes less) of sitting down, I am up again. Maybe my rejection of my restlessness and my easy distractibility is what amplifies the intolerability of the urge to move. I attempt to fix the “problem” by eliminating every possible distraction before I try to find my calm, but the chores never end, and the to-do list only grows longer.
We spoke about ways that I might find more of a forgiving cadence in my day by building in more frequent, shorter breaks, interspersed with shorter periods of work. Perhaps the combination of quietness and movement is what I need, finding a rhythmic flow between work and restorative reflection. My current patterns will be hard to break, but I am hopeful, because I see the potential for more peace and less burnout. With repeated effort, this could be another step toward relaxing my rigid standards and reducing my self-criticism. Perhaps one of the reasons I enjoy yoga so much is the unity of movement and stillness. Now, if I could only bring my practice off of the mat and into my life.
The sixth week of the Kindness Challenge offered an invitation to reflect on those people who inspire me to greater kindness. Pondering this prompt brought to mind thoughts of some very kind and true people. Listing so many men and women who lived dedicated lives of grace, justice, mercy, peacefulness, and selflessness was simultaneously inspirational and frustrating, for their virtues sharply contrasted my own faults. As I thought about this topic, the people I most deeply admired included several saints and many other great figures from history – St. Pope John Paul II, St. Theresa of Avila, St. Francis de Sales, St. Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Dorothy Day. I considered the people whose writings and works influenced me over years. Some occasions in my life marked watershed moments in my own becoming. In my heart, I found that I was still deeply affected by the English thesis that I wrote nearly fifteen years ago on the poetry of Wilfred Owen, and the philosophy course that I took in college where I was first introduced to Leo Tolstoy’s treatise The Kingdom of God is Within You.
Through St. Thérèse, I am learning about the little way. If only I would find the time to actually take her posthumously published autobiography, Story of a Soul, off of my bookshelf and read it! The little way of St. Thérèse is spoken of often, but it seems very elusive and hard to put into practice. Reading her own words on the topic would probably be helpful, but even from what small bits I know, she is already gently reminding me that I do not need to perform great deeds, achieve astounding feats, or set my eyes on lofty goals in order to make a difference in the world. My part may simply be to live as well as I can in this moment, in this day, choosing the greatest love in the smallest, most ordinary decisions that I make, and thereby increasing the grace and goodness in the universe in a tiny, but not insignificant, increment. And, so, I continue to have patience with my limitations, including my limited time and the fact that I am a very, very slow reader.
“I applied myself above all to practice quite hidden little acts of virtue; thus I liked to fold the mantles forgotten by the Sisters, and sought a thousand opportunities of rendering them service.”
~ St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Story of a Soul, Chapter VII
When Mother Teresa took her first vows as a nun, she chose the name “Teresa” after St. Thérèse. Her name as a child in Albania was Gonxha Agnes Bojaxhiu. I first learned about Mother Teresa when I was seven, and one of my classmates chose her as the subject of an autobiographical book report. I was scared of this strange woman in a white robe who didn’t appear at all the way I thought a nun was supposed to look. She didn’t conform to the safe structure of my existing schemas at the time, and I think that made me feel afraid and angry. It was only as I grew up that I discovered the extraordinary compassion, mercy, faithfulness, selflessness, and determination of this incredible woman.
While Mother Teresa’s life served as a source of inspiration on account of her profound virtue, I found myself fascinated by her story for two other reasons. As I learned more about her, I came to understand that her path to her mission among the poorest and most indigent people of Calcutta was not a straight one. She served as a nun for nearly twenty years, teaching and even serving as a school principal, before she received her “call within a call” to work in the slums. It was another two years before she overcame all of the obstacles that prevented her from going directly about the task to which she felt summoned.
Knowing that it took a figure who went on to fulfill such an astounding purpose quite a long time to get there is a comfort to me at my current stage of life. I think that I am on a decent trajectory, but I am not necessarily living my life’s vocation to its fullest extent. Yet. This is not the end. Mother Teresa’s story lends me the courage to keep trying to make the next, right decision, fueling my hope that if I can continue to string together enough of these small choices, my life may still reach farther beyond myself.
“We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop I the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.”
~ Blessed Mother Teresa
Additionally, I learned that after Mother Teresa found her inspiration and began her greatest work, she experienced a deep, spiritual depression. No one knew of this part of her interior life until a book of her letters was published in 2007. Despite an inner despair, darkness, and sense of total abandonment by God, she carried on in her dutiful ministry. For decades, she served cheerfully, encouraging others, never complaining, always faithful and loving, never hinting at the burden of the pain that weighed her down every day.
In my own life, I often struggle with doubt and depression. For most of my life, I was firmly convinced that God was ambivalent about my existence. Though I would never, ever wish the darkness that Mother Teresa described on any person, the words she left behind about these experiences fill me with gratitude, because I feel less alone in my most despairing thoughts. She shows me how to live with courage, optimism, and brightness, even when I feel far from bright.
“Speak tenderly; let there be kindness in your face, in your eyes, in your smile, in the warmth of your greeting. Always have a cheerful smile. Don’t only give your care, but give your heart as well.”
~ Blessed Mother Teresa
After reflecting on the examples of inspirational people like these two women, it is very easy for me to get stuck in comparison. I start thinking of all the ways I’m not good enough and of all the reasons why I fall short of their virtuousness. That sort of emotional and mental climate is not a healthy wellspring of growth. I tend to be quite hard on myself, and I am quick to devalue my positive qualities while also minimizing the weaknesses of others. Theodore Roosevelt said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” More than joy, though, comparison tends to rob me of my belief in my potential to change. One of the most important lessons for me in the lives of role models like St. Thérèse and Mother Teresa is that I am not meant to become them. By following their examples, I am meant to become the fullest and best possible version of myself. I still don’t know who that is, but I hope that by leaning on the wisdom of good people, I am moving in the right direction…
“God has not called me to be successful. He has called me to be faithful.”
In April, a rather unremarkable event happened that stayed with me. It was a small gesture, a tiny overture extended by a total stranger, but it resulted in a lasting gratitude. The task of the fifth week of the Kindness Challenge was to cultivate appreciation for kindnesses received. Though I renewed my commitment to journaling about my gratitudes at the end of each day, I thought that a fitting blog post in keeping with this theme would be to reflect upon a little kindness that made a great impact in my heart.
It was a Thursday afternoon, and I was caught between work and home. All day long, it seemed that one mishap collided with another, and I battled back against a tidal wave of emotions as they crested and crashed over me. Each little hang-up and snafu was rather unremarkable alone, but as I recollected old work traumas, the bullet train of my distress, anxiety, foreboding, blame, frustration, exasperation, and desperation shot out of its station. It didn’t break any land speed records. I managed to tap into a few of my basic skills – enough to keep the velocity of my overreaction in check, but the strain that I experienced was disproportionate to the reality of the situation. Exacerbating the acuity of my suffering, I was attempting to braid together a million loose ribbons of unfinished tasks into some sort of neat bow, while racing to complete a list of to-do’s, and rushing to lock up my office for a week’s attendance at a conference out of state. What was supposed to be a simple and straightforward day seemed to be turning out catastrophically wrong. At least, that was what I told myself. I was feeling worn, thin, and defeated, and my impatience with myself for being unable to better cope only compounded my exhaustion and vexation.
It took every effort that I could summon to pull together all those stray ends by 3pm so that I could make it to my 3:30pm hair appointment on time. Because… priorities. Of course. No self-respecting researcher wants to deliver a presentation at her industry’s huge, annual, international, conference with a shaggy, 8-week old haircut. Nothing was packed yet, and I could feel my body and mind reverberating with apprehensive, negative energy. Discouraged. Despairing. Scared. Overwhelmed. Helpless. Hopeless. Hostile. Agitated. Self-hating. World-hating. Trapped. Victimized. I pulled into a parking lot down the street from my stylist’s studio. Outside the car, the skies were a thick gray, and there was a pressing threat of rain. The forecast predicted precipitation, and a lot of it, and as I was walking out of my office building not fifteen minutes earlier, a few scattered drops were already falling. Yet, for some unclear reason, I decided that I would take a chance without my umbrella.
It looked like I might be fortunate. As I left the salon, the sky was still holding back. My anxiety-fueled perfectionism sank its sharp teeth into my chest, though. I have time for one stop, I told myself, darting around the corner and across the square before ducking into another shop. I NEED a new tube of eyelash serum before my trip! (The more frayed I am, the more ridiculous the demands and expectations I tend impose upon myself.) It was while I was frenetically flipping through the tubes of mascara that the clouds cracked open and the deluge began. I managed to dash madly as far as the corner across from the lot where my car sat, patiently waiting, immune to the downpour. I took shelter under the awning of a bank, but by then the rain was hammering the earth in driving sheets. I decided I wasn’t in that much of a hurry, and I resigned myself to wait, hoping it would lighten as quickly as it began.
There I was, conspicuously standing alone at the corner of the bank, while a blinding torrent of rain cascaded downward. A few cars drove slowly past, windshield wipers flicking wildly, drivers hunched over steering wheels in unbroken concentration, attempting to peer around the raindrops. Across from me, a small SUV was idling in the otherwise deserted lot, headlights flickering and wipers dancing. A man in a windbreaker with a giant golf umbrella suddenly popped out from the driver’s compartment and dashed across the road toward me. “Would you like an escort to your car?” he asked.
In the top left drawer of my desk, I store a collection of stamps, a few eclectic stickers, and a random assortment of blank greeting cards. Across the front of one of those cards, in haphazard lettering, is a short poem by Holly Gerth that reads,
I wish I had a big yellow umbrella
that would keep away all the rain in your life.
I would hold it over your head,
and the drops would splash, splash
and you would never even feel it.
But I don’t have a big yellow umbrella—
so I’ll walk through the rain with you.
I couldn’t believe it was really happening. This generous person who I didn’t even know was walking through the rain with me. His umbrella wasn’t yellow, but it was big. I was simultaneously grateful, relieved, and ashamed. In the face of this genuine act of kindness, I was ashamed and repentant for my own hardness of heart, and I was regretful and remorseful for being so consumed with my petty worries, preoccupations, and anxieties. I was jolted out of my narrow scope of vision, propelled beyond the tiny, inner world where I was trapped as a result of my prolonged over-focus on myself. Though there was a sting that accompanied the recognition of my weakness and warpedness, I was thankful for the awareness, because it expanded my perception and opened my heart. It also threw my problems into sharper relief, and I felt the reassurance of knowing, “This, too, shall pass.”
Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing away;
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
He who has God lacks nothing.
God alone suffices.
~ St. Teresa of Avila
Gathered together under the giant golf umbrella, the two of us hurried across the slogged street, leaning into each other and awkwardly dodging puddles. In less than a minute, he delivered me to my car door, and as I continued to babble my profuse, stumbling words of thanks, he was off again down the sidewalk and back about whatever business brought him out on that particular, wet afternoon. As I pulled away from the curb, I wondered if it was God’s plan that I should lack the insight to bring my own umbrella with me on that day. Was I meant to be trapped in that downpour, so that such a chance encounter might happen? I wondered what impact this simple interaction would effect on the universe. How far would the ripples spread? My bristling, stony heart was slightly (though not entirely) soothed by the thoughtfulness, kindness, and goodness offered to me. Did it allow my rescuer to feel good, positive, joyful, hopeful, generous, and loving to be able to lend a hand to a person in need? Maybe we both departed from that encounter a bit more wholehearted than when we arrived, and ready spread that wholeheartedness to others.
As I reflect on that day now, months later, I can’t help but wonder… maybe it is still creating ripples.