A New Kind of Valentine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Incongruence

Featured Image: “Dark,” © Stephen Bowler, Dec 2013. CC BY 2.0.

In the daily morning meeting, a contextualized and multifaceted discussion arises. As I lean back, my chest and arms open, hands resting in my lap under the long conference table with palms turned ever so slightly upward, I tell myself, “Relax.” There is a touch of forcefulness in the directive, just as there is a raggedness and unsteadiness to my breath. The conversation is not provocative or heated, but more evocative and inviting. And yet, I still feel the chronic tension in my body, especially the tightness of my face and shoulders and the sore lump of my left upper trapezius where it meets my neck.

Slowly, gradually, I melt into the moment, letting the quiet hush of the circulating HVAC system wash over me, settling into the background of the tonal voices that rise and fall from one end of the table and then the other. Across from me, along the far wall of the room, I see a smooth face, rosy cheeks, with deep, dark shadows underneath both eyes. I think about his three young children at home and the new baby, his wife’s recent surgery, and his obscure, mysterious life beyond these walls, of which I know very little. I wonder who he is and what experiences make him. What is buried under the surface of that face? Is he even aware of his own depth? My eyes shift from face to face, taking in the wrinkles of age, the softness of youth, the creases of concern, ringed eyes and heavy lids, or bright irises following their own wandering route. Parents, husbands, wives, children. I wonder what beauty these eyes have beheld and what pain those hearts bear. I pause when I come to a co-worker whose adult son committed suicide several years before I met him, and my eyes start to sting. He never speaks of it to me; I only know that it happened from a passing comment once made by someone else about attending the funeral. What else do the human hearts gathered in this room carry in their depths?

I begin to hear the breaths around me, and for the first time ever, I start to notice the asynchronous rising and falling of shoulders, chests, and bellies of all these gathered bodies. Mine is one of them.

How often do I allow myself to move through my day with awareness of what forms me? How often do I allow myself to really feel? How often am I open to those tender, vulnerable places in my soul? I am tempted to answer, “Never.” I think that I was more awake and alive when I returned from Walden last January, but slowly the walls went back up. I formed a hard shell around my heart, and coming to this realization hurts.

“…for the unexamined life is not worth living.”

~ Plato, The Trial and Death of Socrates

Perhaps, my tranquil consciousness during the conference this morning is an invitation to be more curious about myself and others. The question it leaves me with is, can I accept this bidding to look deeper?

On January 1st, I began reading a page each day from a little book by Anne Wilson Schaef called Meditations for Living in Balance: Daily Solutions for People Who Do Too Much. I am finding the short reflections for each day both meaningful and challenging, moving me to consider differently. On the 25th, the topic was “Congruence.”

“Actions speak louder than words; let your words teach and your actions speak.”

~ St. Anthony of Padua

Am I a trustworthy person? Do my words and my actions align? Do I mean what I say and follow through, or do I speak and write in empty sentiments? Am I deceiving others? Am I deceiving myself? I would be doing myself more harm if I glossed over these questions. Of course I am dishonest. Every time I commit one of these incongruences, I am eroding my soul just a bit. Such self-examination is painful, but living blindly in incongruence is damaging in a more diabolical way.

As one of my favorite, pithy recovery sayings goes, “Feel. Deal. Heal.” It is impossible for anyone to live congruently all the time. Honest introspection is necessary, difficult, and it hurts, but I am not meant to pitch my tent there. I am meant to move THROUGH it and find the reconciliation with God and self that is waiting at the end. There is joy to be discovered in this process. Of course, it is an often-repeating process, but the goal is that with continuing effort, I grow in time.

“Do not let the past disturb you – just leave everything in the Sacred Heart, and begin again with joy.”

~ Blessed Mother Teresa

Calm
Calm,” © Stephen Bowler, Apr 2015. CC BY 2.0.

The Shedding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ Eckhart Tolle

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

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

~ J. C. Watts

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

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

~ Lao Tzu

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

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

~ Brigitte Niole

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ Henri Nouwen

 

Beginning Anywhere

Featured Image: “New Life a New Beginning,” © ♥Adriënne -for a better and peaceful world-, Mar 2010. CC BY 2.0.

Some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious ambiguity…

~ Gilda Radner

Well, it is the sixth of January, and my New Year’s resolutions are still fomenting. Perhaps, that isn’t such an awful thing for someone working to overcome an all-or-nothing outlook on the world. At my last E.D. group session my therapist reminded us, “Any moment can be the instant when you start over. You don’t need to wait until tomorrow, or the beginning of a new week. You don’t need to wait until your next meal. You can start over now. And now. And now.”

Begin anywhere. ~ John Cage

Even though I don’t need a New Year to set new goals, it is still a nice opportunity for a little personal reflection. I began that process well in advance of the New Year, but… one thing led to another, and you can read the rest of the story here.

There’s no arguing against the statement that I am impatient. And perfectionistic. Especially when it comes to my recovery, which at this point, is expanding to encompass this whole, messy metamorphosis of becoming. I’m a bit rigid, inflexible, and demanding when it comes to what I should be and when.

Nothing retards progress in a virtue so much as wanting to acquire it with too much haste!

~ St. Francis de Sales

These words of St. Francis de Sales sound so wise and sweet to my ears, but they just aren’t sinking into my stubborn, frustrated brain. Which is, itself, frustrating. How can I explain the dichotomy of my warring sides? I am partially stuck in the idea that there is an end-point to the process that I began when I entered recovery. I am operating under some notion that I am supposed to reach a stage of completion, or at least some state at which I am more complete, more balanced, more centered, more wholehearted, and living more authentically, genuinely, and vulnerably (i.e., more perfectly) than I am now. In direct opposition to this idea is the basic premise of my new value-system – there IS no final state. The authentic life is not static but is dynamic, because nothing ever stays the same. It is a life of continuous re-balancing, renewal, and re-centering. It requires ongoing becoming, and it won’t ever end until THE end. There is no such thing as perfect, and making myself vulnerable enough to be genuine and wholehearted means accepting all of my beautiful, eclectic, idiosyncratic, even dark and scary, imperfections.

Fresh Start
1/366 – Fresh Start,” © Ravi Shah, Jan 2016. CC BY 2.0.

Over the past few days, I am becoming alert to the pervasive and oppressive underlying monologue in my subconscious. On a continuously repeating loop, it broadcasts, “I am not good enough.” Sometimes, there are different iterations of this phrase. “I am not smart enough, tough enough, diligent enough, focused enough, hard-working enough. I don’t love enough. I’m not outgoing enough.” Underneath it all, though, the message is the same. “I am not enough.” Not yet. As in, the place I occupy right now, this person, this life, this self, this being, is not enough.

About a week before New Year’s Eve, I started compiling a list of the habits that would make me enough. My brainstorm mushroomed until it covered the surfaces of 11 (ELEVEN!) note sheets. Much of it was repetitive, but is it any wonder that I finally broke out in hives on December 31st?

So, I decided to take a break and let this whole resolution-making business settle down. After some kinder, gentler reflection, I was left with these goals for 2016:

ONE – Cultivate silence. Practice being comfortable with being quiet and still. I am a bit better at this than I used to be (although I think I was at my peak a year ago when I left Walden, and my skill eroded as the chaos of life gained momentum). These days, it remains exceedingly difficult for me to sit down and do nothing. No writing, no reading, no scheming or planning, no art, no talking, no television, phone, or computer, no chores… How am I supposed to find myself if I can’t even sit with myself? For me, meditation, contemplative prayer, and guided mindfulness practices are extremely beneficial, yet I never pause long enough to actual DO them! There is never enough time. There is always more that I “need” to accomplish. I am beginning to more consistently remind myself, “There will never be enough time to do everything that I want to do, and it always ends up working out anyway.” In 2016, I want to nurture a calm, peaceful, inner place where I am already enough, where there is nothing to prove, where I don’t need external validation, and where uncertainty and incompleteness are expected. From THAT place will blossom courage, love, empathy, and growth.

TWO – Practice bringing into my conscious awareness that nasty, undermining “I’m not enough” voice. If I can acknowledge and accept those thoughts when they occur, then I can eventually move toward changing the message and replacing the underlying core belief. As long as the tape is playing in my subconscious, however, or just beyond my active awareness, I think I may remain stuck.

THREE – While I’m chipping away at #2, continuing to wade through my emotions is probably in order. I am the queen of secondary and even tertiary emotions. I get mad about being anxious, and then I get even more mad and frustrated about the fact that I am mad over being anxious, because it means I’m not practicing acceptance. (Lost yet?) I also tend to use anger, self-righteousness/indignation, and defensiveness so that I don’t need to face uncertainty, admit that a situation is outside of my control and I must simply accept it, or block feelings of hurt/pain/injury/vulnerability. Becoming more self-aware of these patterns is not going to be easy. Why do I think that identifying my emotions and opening myself to experiencing them fully, without pushing them away, clinging to them, or judging them, may be a resolution that I make every year for the rest of my life?

FOUR – Try new things. New foods, new activities, new people, new experiences. Travel to new places. Do things that scare me, but that are going to help me become the person that I want to be. Stay connected to my old things. Invest in my relationships. Continue to write, to read, and to create. Allow that there will never be a perfect “balance.”

LAST AND ALWAYS – What am I to do when I fall short? What do I do when I’m not practicing self-awareness of my thoughts and emotions, when I am being mindless, when I am being critical of myself, when I am not spending time being quiet and still, when I am caving into the chaos around me and my extraordinary, self-imposed demands? What do I do when I am being reactive and when I am acting out of fear? A little mindfulness-based self-compassion may be in order. Accept myself as I am, accept the situation for what it is, and begin again.

Begin where you are. It would be unscientific to begin anywhere else.

~ Ernest Holmes

 

A new beginning
A new beginning…” © Venu Gopal, Nov 2008. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

 

Becoming Through The Years

Featured Image: “Time,” © JD, Apr 2012. CC BY 2.0.

On January 1st, 2015, I sat at a little writing desk in the brilliantly sun-lit, second-floor landing of my dear friend, Veronica’s house outside of Boston, weeping tears of joy and gratitude. The large Victorian was built in the mid-ninteenth century. How many people before me awoke to a new year under the shelter of its mansard roof? “Welcome hope! Welcome health! Welcome change and courage!” I wrote. “Welcome confidence! Welcome flexibility! Welcome forgiveness! Welcome love!” I was a mere six days away from concluding my six weeks of partial hospitalization for my eating disorder at Walden. Soon, I would drive the 800 miles to Vanillasville to re-enter life circumstances that I once considered unbearable but came to appreciate as less than ideal during those weeks.

“So long self-loathing, adios shame and guilt, toodles fear without faith. From now on, each ‘mistake’ is just another opportunity to learn so that I can go right on progressing. I will experience setbacks, not failures,” I continued. “I’m ready to move on! I’m leaving all my old baggage behind!

The years before 2015 marked my progressive decline. My physical health finally failed in 2013, when I succumbed to an infection that my body simply could not fight off. I battled against it for nearly a year, and there were many times when I thought that I would never know wellness again. As I slipped deeper and deeper into despair, the most significant resolution that I made on New Year’s Day 2014 was to finally seek help from a mental health professional for my lifelong depression. I did not foresee that doing so would completely unravel what was left of my meticulous self-constructs. Before I could begin to rebuild, I needed to level the shoddy bastions and defilades that I lived within all my life, right down to their fractured and leaky foundations. Unpacking and disassembling the pieces of my past and present was the work of that year. It wasn’t a pretty process. It nearly killed me. I nearly killed myself. When the year began, my body was wracked and weakened by disease and malnutrition, and my mind and spirit were broken. By May, my doctor and I were finally desperate enough for a last ditch, relatively new procedure, which, miraculously, worked to treat my infection. At last, my body began to slowly heal. My mind was another matter. It took until November for me to hit my rock bottom psychologically. When that moment came, I found myself at Walden, terrified and on the brink of hopelessness. Then, bit by bit, I found myself at Walden, scared but struggling onward anyway, with growing hope and a glimmer of light glowing inside me.

In my writing from a year ago, there remained the underpinnings of my all-or-nothing thinking. (And it’s still present today). Obviously, I didn’t step out of 2014 and into 2015 as a radically altered person, with all of my “old baggage” in the past and only a future of self-compassion and wholeheartedness gleaming before me. Yet, I set very different resolutions for myself on that day. Upon reflection, I managed to live up to each one. I discovered it’s far easier to realize a goal when it is unmeasurable, non-specific, and flexible. I wanted to make recovery my #1 priority. Check. I wanted to socialize and to try group activities, such as an art class. My eating disorder kept me isolated for far too long. Check! It was extremely uncomfortable in the beginning. I felt anxiety bordering on panic during those initial painting classes, at my first few Bible study groups, and on many, many dinner occasions. Yet, I DID it anyway! “Work on growing even more mentally, emotionally, and physically healthy through reading, prayer, journaling, exercise, and ongoing group and individual therapy. Try to find a level of exercise that is comfortable for me and at which I can be consistent,” I wrote. Again, not easy. At times, downright horrifying. Yet, I DID it anyway!

It’s a work in progress.

As December 31st, 2015 approached, I looked forward to this New Year with eagerness and excitement. I spent several days journaling about how much I changed over the past year and contemplating my 2016 resolutions. One idea built upon another, and soon I was imagining what it would be like on New Year’s Eve. I pictured myself attending my usual Thursday evening eating disorder group, where I would complete perfect reflections, bringing the year to its full conclusion and opening the next with rounded balance. From there, I would join friends for dinner at a nearby restaurant. I envisioned myself in a shimmery dress, under twinkling lights, radiating beauty and effervescent with joy.

Happy New Year 2015!
Happy New Year 2015!” © Norbert Posselt, Dec 2014. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

New Years’ Eve arrived at last. All was as anticipated. Then, at 5:15 pm, as I climbed the stairs to the bedroom to change clothes for the night, I broke out in hives.

I have an established history of stress urticaria and angioedema. It occurs much less frequently now than it once did, perhaps once or twice every few months, but sometimes it takes me by surprise. When it catches me off guard it is usually because I am deftly denying or negating that I am under any stress or anxiety until my body makes it impossible for me to ignore.

“Why am I putting so much pressure on myself?” I asked the face in the mirror. I didn’t want to wear an uncomfortable, constricting dress to dinner. It was 30 degrees out! The friend that I was meeting would probably be sporting a cardigan, and the restaurant where we booked reservations was far from elegant. I wanted to wear dark leggings and a sweater in which I could wrap myself up. I didn’t want to set a litany of resolutions. I wanted to keep the same simple resolutions that I made last year. I didn’t want the night to be special for its glamour and unique meaning. I wanted the night to be special for its simplicity. I abandoned the elaborate concoction of images that I created about what New Year’s Eve is supposed to be and popped some Benadryl. I pulled on a soft, new sweater with gold buttons on the shoulders that was a Christmas gift to myself and slid my feet into shearling-lined Birkenstocks. With my group, I sipped club soda and toasted New Year’s resolutions like, “To cultivating imperfection,” and “To loving-kindness for ourselves and others.” Afterward, I joined my friend for a late meal. I was back in my apartment and snuggled in bed long before any countdowns or fireworks.

This morning, I slept late and woke up feeling warm and rested. I laid under the covers, in the cocoon of my own heat, for a long while before I finally stirred. In the kitchen, I fixed a cup of tea and the same bowl of oatmeal that I eat on most mornings, and I jotted down in neat, block letters, “This is not a beginning. Nor is it an end. My life is fluid, ever shifting as I grow and become.” Here is to another year of becoming. Thank you for being with me on this journey.

Journey of a 1000 Miles
Journey of a 1000 miles,” © Fritz Crittle, Mar 2012. CC BY-NC 2.0.

Christmas Was

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frustrating as it still remains with each recollection and retelling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today I am choosing acceptance.

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

 

 

 

 

Enough

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—–

 

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

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

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

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

Thank You to My Former Nemesis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catching

Featured Image: “Tundra,” © Ryan Fonkert, Dec 2013. CC BY-NC 2.0.

“You’re not as alone as you think you are.

It’s going to be ok.”

After turning over a dozen, different, possible responses in my head and rejecting them each, these were the words upon which I finally settled.

“I want to believe you,” replied Vivienne.

“I know that you do,” I sighed.

Following my first week with the eating disorder process group that is now part of my maintenance lifestyle, Vivienne emailed our therapist to express how excited she was to meet me, someone with whom she felt like she could relate. I was a bit hesitant to jump into a friendship with someone I didn’t know who, like me, suffered from an eating disorder and concomitant mental illness. Yet, over the past many months, I have come to know Vivienne as a brilliant, witty, hysterically funny, generous, and selfless person.

We exchange text messages and occasionally invite our demons out for coffee at the local bookstore or café, spending hours spilling the stuff we wouldn’t share with just anybody. The stuff that makes us vulnerable. The stuff that keeps us stuck in our own heads, in our old fears, in our rigid patterns. We share much in common, despite our many differences, but there is one, quite painful difference, and it lies between us like a chasm. My eating disorder and depression are in remission, and Vivienne’s eating disorder, depression, and borderline personality disorder are not. Yet.

I try to help her focus on that word, “YET.” I try to help her understand that recovery evolves organically. It doesn’t just happen like flipping on a light switch, or at least it didn’t for me. “Try to think of it like starting an old car on a cold day,” I once said. “You turn the key and turn the key, but nothing happens. Then you hear a few clicks, and you may think, this is it! But again, nothing happens. You may need to turn the key and turn the key and rev the engine over and over, but eventually, something catches!” I try to help her remember that we are both works in progress, just different stages of progress. I tell her that we are both on our own journey, and while our paths may look the same in places, no two journeys are exactly alike. I try to convince her not to compare herself to me or to anybody else. I tell her that I will tell her as many times as she needs to hear it that she is worthy, she is beautiful, she is not fat, she is smart, she is kind, she is capable, she is strong, she is more than her diagnoses, she is more than her past. I try to show her how she is already succeeding. I tell her that every day that she wakes up and fights again is a success. I tell her that not quitting is a victory. I tell her that she is in a battle for her mind and her soul, and she will win in the end by her sheer tenacity. “Inch by inch,” I tell her. “Bit by bit.” I try to help her to see the ways in which she is already changing.

The Arctic Tundra,” © Karina Y, May 2013. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

She amazes me with her intelligence, her waggishness, and her courage. In the face of unimaginable circumstances this past summer, largely beyond her control, she struggled on day after day, week after week. It was enough to crush most healthy people, but she came through it. I list out all the obstacles she already overcame. “You’re right!” she agrees, and I see a glimmer of hope in her face. But her demons return with fangs and claws bared. She asks me questions that I cannot answer. “Why does it hurt? Why is this happening? What am I doing wrong? Why is it so hard?” She can’t see me crying for her. She can’t see my heart breaking. I remember being in a similar place and asking these questions, and I know that nothing I say can take away her pain.

“You’re not as alone as you think you are. It’s going to be ok,” I tap the letters into my phone and send off the text message.

“I keep re-reading these words,” she writes back. “I want to believe you so badly!”

“Good!” I tell her. “Keep re-reading it. Keep saying it to yourself. Even if you don’t believe it now. Because it is true. One day, once you’ve repeated it enough, you will believe it.”

“We are not alone as we think we are. It’s going to be ok.”

"Lesotundra," © Indrik Myneur, Aug 2009. CC-BY 2.0.
Lesotundra,” © Indrik Myneur, Aug 2009. CC-BY 2.0.

Riding Shotgun

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

I did then what I knew how to do.

Now that I know better, I do better.

~ Maya Angelou

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Though much is taken, much abides; and tho’

We are not now that strength which in old days

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

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

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

~ Alfred Lord Tennyson, Ulysses