The Happiness Tag

Tag! I guess I’m it! When I was little, we neighborhood kids came up with some pretty creative variations on the game of tag (television tag was a favorite, although the rules were constantly changing), but I think this happiness tag is the most wholehearted version I have come across, by far! Thank you to Ioana of Music Teacher Lifestyle for tagging me. Reading her posts always puts a smile on my face. You can read all of the beautiful, wonderful things that make her happy, here. Thank you for tagging me, and for inspiring this post, Ioana!

Without further ado…

Five Things that Make Me Happy

  1. A truly restful night of sleep! Is there anything quite so refreshing? All the delicious, black coffee in the world can’t replicate this feeling. When I’m rested, it is so much easier to be mindful, to find gratitude in unlikely places and situations, to cope with distressing circumstances, to connect with others… I could go on and on!
  2. Traveling home to visit my family and closest friends. They are all concentrated together in one area of New England. Getting away from work and spending time with these people, with whom I share my deepest connections, restores my heart and soul!
  3. Riding my bike along the quiet, paved, wooded trail near my house. It’s peaceful and serene to feel the breeze against my skin on a sunny afternoon, to let all the sights, sounds, and smells of nature seep into me, and to exchange friendly smiles with the other people who are enjoying the outdoors.
  4. Lingering over breakfast on my back patio. I am blessed to live on a little pond, with two fountains, and my townhouse is set far back from the narrow, grassy road. It is peaceful and serene. The ducks love to come right up to my back door, looking for wayward crumbs. This summer, a hummingbird is making a home nearby, and I sometimes catch a glimpse of him as he darts between leaves and stems. An overhanging eve keeps the hot rays of the sun and the sprinkling of raindrops at bay. When I sit there with my journal and a cup of tea, it feels like I am on vacation in my own backyard.
  5. The mass. It might sound like a pretty odd thing to draw happiness from, but participating in the liturgy is one of the experiences that often brings me the most joy and sends my heart soaring. Although, for most of my life, nearly the exact opposite was true. I have always been religious, but I was motivated by fear, guilt, shame, obligation, a deep belief that I was not good enough and that God did not love me, and a perfectionistic, rigid, anxious, angry drive to follow all the rules. It was in recovery that my perspective began to shift. I discovered my worthiness. I wish that I could describe how that transformation happened. It was both a gradual process and a sudden, shocking realization. Now, my entire manner of relating to God, the church, and my spirituality is changing. Exploring the actual roots of my faith and learning more about its vibrant traditions is changing my life in ways I never thought possible. Granted, I don’t walk away from every mass feeling elated. It often remains very difficult to stay present and to find meaning and connection. Yet, on those occasions when I am truly open, loving, and mindful, I find joy and beauty that move me to tears.
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The view from my porch, Summer 2015.

Five Songs that Make Me Happy

  1. Come Fly with Me, by Frank Sinatra. There is something classic and timeless about this song, but also simple and nostalgic.
  2. I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles), by The Proclaimers. Who wouldn’t want someone to walk 1,000 miles for them? This song doesn’t bring to mind any particular person for me, but it summons thoughts of all the people I love and who love me. I can’t help but sing along.
  3. We Belong, by Pat Benatar. Because everyone wants to belong, and this song reminds me that we all do. We all belong. We are all worthy. And we don’t have to do anything to earn it.
  4. Once Upon a December, from the animated movie “Anastasia.” This song makes me think of memories of my younger self and brings me comfort when I feel lonely.
  5. Away in a Manger. On her list of happy songs, Ioana included a Christmas carol that brings her happiness the whole year through, so I thought I would do the same! There is a reminder for me in this song that no matter how old I grow, I am always God’s little child, and it strengthens and consoles me even on the hottest summer days.

True happiness needs to be passed on! I am nominating the following bloggers (whose writing often brings me much gratitude and joy) to continue the happiness tag by writing about five things that make them happy and five songs that stir happiness in their hearts.

Happiness Tags:

  1. Anne, of ainsobriety
  2. Jenny, of Peace from Panic
  3. Lauren, of Milly’s Guide to Happiness
  4. Eli, of Coach Daddy
  5. Jenn, of HealthyJenn
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Mallard Family, August 2016

Before the Kindness Challenge – To Reignite the Inner Light

Featured Image:  “Candle” © Walt Stoneburner (own work), Oct 2011. CC BY 2.0. (license)

In the current chaos of my life, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. My little raft is tossing about on some pretty turbulent and stormy waters, and sometimes it feels like all I can do is hold fast. At times, it even feels as though I’m already overboard, and I’m just clinging to the lines, choking on salt spray, and struggling to drag myself out of the waves. As my fingers tip-tap over the keys today, I am floating through a momentary calm. My emotions are steady, my breathing is easier, and my friends are close at heart. However, it’s hurricane season in my metaphorical ocean. I know that there will be more storms to weather before all the present uncertainty works itself out.

The challenges that I am confronting right now are difficult and triggering in an unfamiliar way. The last time I felt remotely similar, I was still at Walden undergoing partial hospitalization treatment for my eating disorder. As days become weeks and weeks coalesce into months, the emotional and psychological demands of the evolving circumstances become increasingly taxing. The acuity and extremity of the stress makes it hard for me to access and utilize the skills that I didn’t realize were becoming lax with disuse. Incorporating elements of mindfulness, dialectical thinking, CBT, and the other tools that I once practiced diligently into my daily life means that I don’t pay as much attention to the focused, attentive, and deliberate training that it required to build those habits. When I am in crisis, I can’t recall how I once managed distress tolerance. When my emotions are roiling out of control, I know that I am in desperate need of emotional regulation, but I don’t remember how to do it.

In addition to the pain that I experience on account of the uncertainty of life, there is the pain of my secondary emotions. I am upset about being upset, and I am frustrated that I am frustrated, and I am angry because I am angry. Such secondary emotions only deepen the darkness and tip me closer to despair. That is one reason why I am grateful for the first annual Kindness Challenge. It couldn’t be more appropriately timed. Just as I feel the light in me flickering unsteadily, here is a choice to pursue a different course. A course of kindness. A choice for life. I hope that, no matter what occurs over the next seven weeks, I can embrace this challenge and nurture that little flicker in my heart.

#RevofKindness #bekind

“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience…And over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection. And let the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace into which you were also called in one body. And be thankful.”

~ Colossians 3:12,14-15

kindnesschallenge

Joy in a Broken Window

Featured Image: “Snowy Highway,” © Taber Andrew Bain (own work), December 2007. CC BY 2.0. (license)

As I type away, I am gazing out the big picture window of a downtown coffee shop. The street beyond is drowning in sunlight. The temperatures outside are expected to reach 60⁰F (15.5 C) this afternoon, and the sidewalk is full of people drinking up the first sips of spring. Yet, the forecast for the week ahead includes, of all things, more snow.

Just a mere three days ago, the fluffy white stuff was falling gracefully from a cloud-obscured sky while I drove along my morning commute. I rolled down the automatic window to greet the gate attendant as I entered the complex enclosing my office building, and as I pulled up on the little, black button to raise the glass again, I heard a tremendous crashing sound from the door. “Please tell me that was a rock kicked up by another car,” I thought to myself. There were no passing cars, though, and I knew that something was broken. I pushed the button down again, apprehensively. The electric motor made a strained, whirring sound, but the pane lowered all the way. When I pulled up once more, the whirring gave way to a choked clank, and the window stuck halfway. The gentle, wet snow continued to swirl toward the earth as I drove slowly onward. A few stray flakes fluttered onto my lap as an icy wind stung my eyes.

My first reaction was to think, “It happens. The car is eight years old, after all. Stuff breaks.” I pulled into a parking space, the wind whipping across the crest of the hill and through the open gap. “Good thing I know where we keep the heavy-duty garbage bags. Really good thing I borrowed that packaging tape from J the other day! I bet neither of us would’ve guessed I’d be using it to tape a trash bag over my window!” I mused. Locking the door, the irony of the action bemusing me, I continued my inner contemplations. “It’s still really early. Maybe the dealership will have service appointments available today if I call right away. Good thing work is slow this week, and my schedule is so flexible. Maybe the repair guys can pop that huge ding out of the passenger side while they’re fixing the window!” Someone with a white door inflicted quite the dent into the dark blue mental of my front right a few weeks ago, and I was meaning to call for an estimate on that repair, anyway. My imagination chugged on. “If it won’t take long, I could just wait while they work. I could sit at the dealership and read my book! That would be way better than work. They have free coffee there!” It surprised me that I was in such a good mood given the moisture that was collecting on my leather seats and the money that I was about to shell out. Even the negative “Oh no!” reactions of my coworkers when I told them what happened couldn’t dampen the glow of joy and gratitude in my heart.

It turned out that there were indeed service appointments available at the dealership that very morning. Driving along the highway in the far right lane, trying to limit merging as best I could, intermittently craning my head to look over my left shoulder and ducking low to peer out the half-glass at the bottom of the window, I tried to tune out the deafening noise of the double-layered black trash bag buffeting against the air currents. “This really isn’t too bad, I permitted. “I’m remarkably warm and dry for being protected by just these two, thin sheets of plastic.” There weren’t many people on the road, thankfully. The wintry landscape to either side of the highway was picturesque, and I reveled in its stunning beauty. Peace, joy, and gratitude washed over me.

It occurred to me that a busted car window was more of an inconvenience than an actual suffering. Nothing truly bad happened, and I wasn’t afflicted with any pain or loss. Yet, it also dawned on me that in the not-too-distant past, even such relatively simple inconveniences threw me into fits of anxiety and distress. Instead, on that day, I viewed my broken window as an odd but marvelous gift. I wondered if my sense of calm and my ability to find delight in my circumstances was similar in some small, barely-related manner, to what so many holy people described when reflecting on the joy they found in the hardships they experienced when they were living a life dedicated to love, service, and Christ. I certainly would never begin to draw any parallels between my broken car window and their lives, by any means. The situations couldn’t be more disparate. There was no sacrifice involved on my part in leaving work for a morning to drive to the auto dealer. I definitely wasn’t serving some higher purpose or worthy cause. Yet, there was something loving and accepting in my heart that morning, and it made all the difference. I found myself wondering… It must start somewhere, right? Even if it is such a little thing?

 “Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.”

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Day 126 - For Rob
Day 126 – For Rob…” © Kate Sumbler (own work), February 2007. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

Grace Breaks Through

Who remembers Taz, the incoherent Tasmanian devil animated by Warner Bros.? As an increasingly self-aware, recovering perfectionist, when an attack of perfectionistic fervor strikes, it feels like Taz is inside of my chest, whirling in a maniacal cyclone of destruction, tongue hanging out, panting, scattering saliva, and spouting indecipherable gibberish at a deafening level. Welcome to last weekend.

By the time I crossed Friday’s threshold, I was frustrated, angry, and entirely exhausted. I was guilty of foregoing sleep and self-care, the consequence of forcing too much into too little time while telling myself it was all completely necessary. Friday brought with it an enticing promise of relief and an opportunity to catch up on everything that needed doing.

Back when I set my New Year’s Resolutions, I mentioned that I wanted to become better at identifying when I was using anger as a screen to avoid feeling vulnerable, hurt, afraid, uncertain, etc.. When I spent the entire course of Friday feeling frustrated, bitter, and resentful, I persistently questioned myself, “What am I missing? What is really going on here?” My inability to answer my self-inquiry only deepened my irritation and impatience. Finally, I resolved that it didn’t matter. I was convinced that after a night of solid sleep, I would arise on Saturday feeling refreshed and renewed. Well, I woke up on Saturday to a messy house, a cluttered desk, and an excessive list of “must-do’s.” Of course, I jumped straight in, assuring myself that I was being necessarily reflective. I was prioritizing, taking one thing at a time, and “doing the next best thing,” mindfully. I even paused for a brief, guided meditation (on exploring anger) and spent an excrutiating four whole minutes sitting in silence, gazing out the window, letting the sunlight penetrate my exterior, simply contemplating. New Years’ Resolution #1 – to cultivate stillness, quiet, and peace? Yeah, that’s not going to be so easy.

By the end of the day, I was disappointed with my productivity, and I wasn’t feeling any better. When I sat up in bed on Sunday, at first appearances, it seemed like more of the same. I can’t exactly describe what happened, but in the midst of all that, light broke through. Figuratively at first, but then literally.

On Sunday morning, I awoke, and I did what I do on most Sundays. I reached for the phone, assessed the hour, and in an instant broke down the rest of the day and what I could expect to accomplish. Then, I picked up the little prayer booklet beside by my bed and tried to let the mass readings for the day penetrate my calvarium, underlining and annotating with color-coded pens.

“Ezra read plainly from the book of the law of God, interpreting it so that all could understand what was read. Then Nehemiah, that is, the governor, and Ezra the priest-scribe and the Levites who were instructing the people said to all the people: ‘Today is holy to the Lord your God. Do not be sad, and do not weep’ – for all the people were weeping as they heard the words of the law. He said further: ‘Go, eat rich foods and drink sweet drinks, and allot portions to those who had nothing prepared; for today is holy to our Lord. Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the Lord must be your strength!’”

~ Nehemiah 8:8-10

In these words, I found something that I needed that morning. I found permission to be joyful.

You see, my perfectionism really arises from my deep belief that I’m not good enough. To borrow from Brené Brown, it’s my shuffle for self-worth. Yet, God knows that I am a sinner. He knows all of my darkest parts far better than I know them. And he forgives me. And he loves me. And he wants me to be happy. Because he also knows all of my glorious parts and all of my potential far better than I. The people who heard Ezra proclaim the law of Moses wept and lamented as they realized their failings, but they were then invited to resume a life of love, gratitude, and joy free from the burden of their past. Once I acknowledge my stumbles and make them as right as I can, I am invited to stand back up. And sing. And laugh. And dance. And eat rich food. (Still working on that last part.)

It wasn’t quite entirely so simple, though, old patterns being hard to break. Even as my glimmer of realization began to cast a hint of illumination into the hardened, self-hating recesses of my mind, I was simultaneously planning what I was going to wear for the day, mapping out my afternoon, organizing my bedside table with one hand, and scratching the cat with the other.

Finally, I came downstairs and opened the blinds, and I couldn’t close my eyes to the dazzling sun reflecting off the frozen snow. As the first rays of day shot over the horizon, I truly paused. It occurred to me that there must be some sort of atmospheric phenomenon that makes the sunlight of winter appear more clear, radiant, and bright than the warm, humid sun of summer months. In that moment, almost impulsively, I did something almost foreign to me. Even though Taz was whirling inside me, jabbering something about how I would be running late, I stepped outside into the icy air.

One of my favorite blogs to follow is alpha // whiskey // foxtrot, by the enormously talented Ashley Wilson Fellers. Her black-and-white photography is just as breathtaking as her mindful, poignant, thought-provoking reflections in poetry and prose. (Seriously, if you don’t already follow blog, go check her out). She is one of those artists and writers who encourages me to see the world differently, and on that particular morning, I almost felt like I was seeing the sunrise with her eyes.

I took a picture. And then I took another. Then I pondered, “I wonder how the light and shadows would look from that spot over there.” And I went. In black-and-white, there was no color to distract the eye. The brightness and darkness were just… there. It was an image of the simplicity and stillness that I spent the preceding 48 hours hunting relentlessly. No noise. Just peace.

Winter sunrise 1

Winter Sunrise 2

In the end, there was no great epiphany or single event that catapulted me to some new, profound plane of existence. Rather, it was a culmination of tiny moments, finally ending in a willingness to open my eyes to what was before me all along.

Wishing each of you who read this love, laughter, joy, and peace today.

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

~ Jeremiah 29:11

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.

Not the Food

Feature Image: “Polar Vortex,” © Rick Schwartz, Jan 2014. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Something is different. Something is off. I can feel it in my sinews and sense it in my thoughts. Rigidity. Inflexibility. Fear. Uncertainty. Conflict. Confusion. Control. My muscles are tenser. The hollow that caves out beneath my sternum when I’m anxious is sharper. Even my sleep, usually blissful and serene, is nervous and fragmented. Tight. Forced. Edgy.

On Thursday, I realize that there is not enough plain, Greek, 2% fat yogurt left in the refrigerator to make up a full protein exchange. The cottage cheese is nearly gone, too. My thoughts begin to loop around themselves. “What will I eat? Not enough yogurt. What will I eat? No cottage cheese. There is nothing to eat. I have nothing to eat. What am I going to eat? I want yogurt. I could eat chicken or fish. I want yogurt. What will I eat? No yogurt. What am I going to do?” Four nights in a row, and I am eating the same thing for dinner every evening. The idea of something different scares me. I won’t be full. I’ll be vulnerable to a binge. (It doesn’t matter that in all the innumerable times this fear occurred to me over the course of the last year, accompanied at various times by various levels of anxiety, not once did it ever become a reality.) Somehow, I summon the flexibility to cobble together something different for my Thursday dinner. Just for this one night. Tomorrow, I will go to the grocery store. Tomorrow, there will be yogurt, and I will be OK.

On Monday, a box of chocolates arrives at work from Inga, who is in Germany at the moment. By box, I mean, a shipping box. Full of German chocolate. Ritter Sport and Kinder. (Ok, technically, Kinder is an Italian company.) It’s 9am and my colleagues are already stuffing themselves full of Happy Hippos, but I know that eating pure sugar this early in the morning will result in anything but happiness for me. I remind myself, “What is right for someone else is not necessarily right for me,” as I try not to judge them and try to not let their actions influence my own decisions or my emotions. My thoughts feel balanced and not triggered, but my body is telling me something else. That ball of rubber bands in my chest is wound tight, and my breathing is short. I am noticing this reaction is different than my non-reaction to the bowl of Kit-Kats that Brad keeps on his desk. I barely pay those unappealing, highly processed, waxy-tasting, artificially flavored concoctions a half-second’s glance. My eye flits over them and then forget them as soon as it turns to another object in the room. “I hate that the Ritter Sport and Kinder chocolate is different. I can’t change that this is different.” Acceptance is such a rotter.

Vortex
Vortex bw,” © Tony Higsett, Aug 2007. CC BY 2.0.

Throughout these days and weeks, my thoughts chug along the familiar railroad tracks of, “I’m eating too much. I’m eating too many calorie-dense foods. This time I will gain weight. This time I am eating more than I did before, and I will definitely be heavier when Kelly weighs me again. Why am I doing this? I don’t need a mug of hot chocolate in the evening after dinner every night. Why do I need the television to unwind at the end of the day? What is wrong with me?” It isn’t fun, but it isn’t intolerable. As my therapist observes, it’s remarkable that I’m not “white-knuckling it” through these periods as I did last winter. I do not need to consciously repeat to myself over and over and over, “Thinking about binging does not mean that I need to act on my thoughts. I don’t need to be afraid of food. I do not need to reject my thoughts. I can tolerate my thoughts. My thoughts can’t hurt me. Just because the food is there, does not mean that I will eat it.” I am not breaking into stress hives. No panic attacks so far. It’s irritating and annoying, it’s confusing and it grates on my mind and spirit, but I know that it won’t last. And I probably won’t even gain any weight. And if I do, it will all balance out.

As I sit at my desk on Friday afternoon, grimacing with the intrusion of perseverations, I tell myself, “If Kelly was here, she would ask me, ‘What is going on with you right now, because this is NOT ABOUT THE FOOD.’”

The funny and confusing thing is that I don’t feel anxious or distressed about anything in particular. “There’s nothing going on!” I am tempted to protest. Consciously, that is true. But… under the surface… I take out a piece of paper and in ten minutes make a list of twelve inciting factors. Why does one workplace need to throw FOUR different parties within the span of two weeks?! The Christmas shopping isn’t finished, the Christmas cards are mostly unwritten, and I am flying home again on the 19th. I’m considering undertaking a new volunteer activity. My imagination is beginning to stir with ideas of foreign travel for the first time in years, which is both exciting and uncomfortable, exhilarating and threatening. There are uncertainties at work and in life that I can’t control. The future is unknown. I can’t pretend it doesn’t bother me. Clearly, it bothers me. I try to make the uncertain certain. I tighten up my control. I channel those thoughts and energies into food and weight, without being any the wiser to what is happening just below the surface of my awareness. It’s unsettling and fascinating at the same time. I marvel at my mind’s capacity for manipulation. What a survival skill!

Last year, it was all about the food. It was about gutting it out against all obstacles. I was practicing distress tolerance daily. It was a minute-by-minute guerrilla war against my binge eating disorder. It took all of my supports, all of my resources, all of my new, tentative, abecedarian coping mechanisms to survive.

 

Bandaged Hands
Bandaged Hands,” © Beth Scupham, Oct 2011. CC BY 2.0.

Without the white-knuckling, I am becoming aware of what lies beneath, behind, beyond my fixation on food, weight, body image, and control of all of the above. On Monday, I find myself at dinner with Brita. The Christmas lights on the storefronts set my eyes and heart aflutter. The brightly decorated windows glow with the spirit of the season. I am bursting with warmth and gladness at the sight of my friend. Two weeks is too long! There is too much news to share between us! The restaurant is quiet and dim and as we slide into our booth, and the room seems to wrap around us like a soft blanket. There are only a few other patrons, and the waitress is all ours. The analyses, the ruminations, the compulsions about what I am eating melt away. I don’t even care that th(e roasted vegetables I order turn out to be half potatoes. I tell myself that potatoes are nutritious in their own way, and eating extra starch on this one occasion will not do me any consequential ill. When our desserts are served, I slowly nibble away at the entire slice of chocolate cheesecake. I’m way too full, and I know that I ate right through my satiety cues, but it’s OK, because it isn’t about the food at all. It’s about being with Brita tonight, in this place, in this moment in time. Even after we part ways, I am not shaming myself or berating myself, I’m not assessing how I need to act differently the next time. I just assume that I will do better, and I continue to relish the dancing embers in my chest where the cavern of echoes reverberated just a short time ago. I sleep as if in a cocoon of clouds and don’t wake until the next morning. When I do, I smile and think, “It isn’t about the food at all.”

Happy
Happy,” © Pete Georgiev, Apr 2009. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

 

November Twenty-Fifth

Featured Image: “Autumn radiance,” © Mark K., Oct 2014. CC BY-NC 2.0.

For Thanksgiving (and my 1-year anniversary of recovery), I decided to take advantage of my judicious use of vacation days to date and spend the entire week at home with my family and friends in Connecticut and Massachusetts. Four days in Connecticut and two days in Massachusetts for the price of three days of leave and two 13-hour car drives on either end of my visit seemed like a pretty good exchange for my favorite holiday.

Thanksgiving – the perfect opportunity to practice my dialectical skills. It is the one time throughout the year when the greatest number of my nearest family members assemble in one place. It happens to come at the close of my favorite season, autumn, when the air is crisp and fills my lungs with an invigorating snap, before the harsher cold of winter settles and nudges me inside toward the fireplace, hot tea, and soft slippers. I cherish what Thanksgiving stands for, the coming together of family, the warmth, the light, the joy, the expressions of love and gratitude. When I open my heart to those themes, I find myself humbled, my sense of connection to others and to the universe crests, and my entire being seems to thrive. It is so much easier to live authentically when I am drinking in a steady stream of Thanksgiving’s wholehearted nectar.

The holiday now stands as a reminder of the season of growth that I entered when I began the partial hospitalization program at Walden on November 25, 2015. There probably wasn’t a better time of year for me to become fully engaged in my recovery. A year ago, I thought, “This timing is great because it will get me through the holidays and all those horrible, stressful food situations. Bonus, I’m not at work for the endless parade of potlucks and parties. Score!” I didn’t stop to think, “This timing is great because as I am embracing a completely unknown way of thinking and existing, a way rooted in compassion, forgiveness, love, relationships, finding the deeper meaning in life, living with a sense of purpose, remaining present in the moment, letting go of everything else… the entire world is coming together to re-center on those very same ideals!” That worldwide invitation to ground oneself wholeheartedly, to strengthen the bond with the self and with the others around us, is what Thanksgiving represents to me. Maybe I’m too idealistic, but if that is the case, please leave me to my idealism! When I allow cynicism disguised as pragmatism to govern me, I don’t seem to go anywhere but deeper into my own ego-centrism and self-righteousness. I would rather answer the knock at the door of my soul that I hear during this season, respond to the invitation to revisit the values I hold so dear, and explore with curiosity and patience just where the path from that door leads.

Candle bokeh inside Munich Dom
Candle bokeh inside Munich Dom,” © Nathan Rupert, Aug 2011. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Here’s the thing… my inner critic, my cynically “pragmatic” demon, is never going away. I suppose that I can’t blame him. (I don’t know why I conceptualize this aspect of my personality as male, but that’s how I identify with it). In fact, I might actually be grateful to him, because I can imagine that if I walked about with my heart constantly wide open, trusting always, espousing universal love/compassion/forgiveness, and practicing vulnerability to the extreme, it wouldn’t be long before that same heart was ripped right out of my chest. A little suspicion and doubt keep me balanced, alert, and alive, just as a little healthy guilt keeps me in touch with my need to continue shining the spotlight of my values on my actual conduct, making adjustments and amends when I do wrong.

Thanksgiving isn’t only about family, soulfulness, and gratitude. Like so many other things of this world, it is neither all good nor all bad. It’s a time when our culture aggrandizes binging and a host of other disordered eating behaviors. While we make jokes about turducken and laugh about stuffing ourselves so full that all we can do is lie immobile on the sofa with our pants unbuttoned, the nutrition/health/dieting/weight loss industry is selling us an unachievable image of the perfect lifestyle. How many Paleo cookbooks, juicers, Nutrisystem plans, weight-loss supplements, etc. will be sold in the next two months? Thanksgiving is a time for every business to roll out their shiniest marketing strategies and glitziest promises of wellbeing, whether explicitly stated or merely implied (buy this sweater and you’ll be beautiful, thin, have lots of friends, and your Christmas will be picturesque). My cynical demon is seething.

The worst part for me is tolerating the talk around the family table or at the work potlucks. “I stopped eating all sugar and have lost 12 pounds and feel fabulous! You NEED to do it.” “I’m trying a juice cleanse between Thanksgiving and Christmas this year.” “I discovered this AMAZING new workout. It will seriously change your life.” “The reason your rheumatoid arthritis is flaring up is because you’re still eating wheat! My co-worker’s sister had the exact same thing, and when she went gluten free she was able to come off ALL of her meds. I swear.” It isn’t as though this sort of thing doesn’t happen throughout the year, it only seems that it propagates during the holidays… like a fungus. My cynical demon is roaring.

Deep breath. “You can’t save the world,” Kelly, my nutritionist, once told me. As November 25th rolls into November 26th, I am resolving to practice my dialectics. It is what it is. It is truly, amazingly, brilliantly wonderful. It is… less than ideal. There are certain ways that I can choose to stand up for my authenticity respectfully and thoughtfully, and there are a great many more things that are far beyond my control. I am centering myself on the light, the warmth, the peace, and the joy, I am practicing gratitude, compassion, and forgiveness, and I am striving for understanding. I am finding small ways to change my little piece of the world around me, and I am letting go of everything else.

Happy Thanksgiving to all! May we each cast a little more light out into the world.

release
release,” © Ahmed Mahin Fayaz, March 2012. CC-BY-2.0.

Wonderland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What was your favorite part?” she persists.

“When Lulu came!” he declares.

I choke again.

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

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

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

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

The Ties that Bind

“You know what would be really great?” my brother leaned back casually into the corner of the plush, red leather sofa, his voice sharply punctuated by his characteristic sardonicism. The corners of his mouth curled in mirth. “If you weren’t afraid of eeeeeverything.” His eyes twinkled playfully, offsetting the biting edge of his words, but they didn’t sting any less painfully.

Caught off guard, I could feel the rusty gears of my mind grinding against themselves, ineffectively searching for the best response. “Yeah,” I answered lamely. “That would be super-great. That’s the goal.” I stared at the dish of broccoli, carrots, and sugar snap peas on the coffee table before us, the artfully presented bowls of artichoke dip and hummus, my own dry hands, my sister-in-law’s between us. His comment dissected me like surgical steel slicing directly into one of the chambers of my heart. What I heard him say was, “You are a pathetic fraidy-cat, so scared of her own shadow it’s amazing that you’re able to function in the world.” Something inside me shriveled.

One of the lessons I’m coming to understand about communication and interpersonal effectiveness is that owning up to my anxieties, vulnerabilities, doubts, and questions is important to ensuring that my needs are met and is key to establishing realistic expectations and healthy boundaries for myself and others, and to building relationships. However, there is such a thing, apparently, as too much vulnerability. My memory of the evening is a bit fuzzy when it comes to the nitty-gritty details, but I’m pretty sure that in the fifteen minutes before my brother’s half-jovial, half-exasperated comment, I declared my fear of at least twelve different situations and inanimate objects, ranging from various types of food to overseas travel (despite the fact that I’ve been to Europe four times and visited seven foreign countries), to camping, dogs, germs, herbal teas, and swimming pools (even though I was a former competitive swimmer, then worked as a lifeguard and swimming instructor for eight years). Sigh.

He doesn’t understand! I thought, feeling defensive and wounded. He doesn’t realize all the work I’m doing to identify my fears, name them, and confront them! Perhaps that was true, but perhaps he was also overwhelmed by my unguarded and uncensored announcing of all-things-that-terrify-me. It won’t always be this way, I told myself. One day, I’ll be brave. One day, I won’t be afraid of the swimming pool or traveling.

Was it always this way? When I think about myself BEFORE, I remember myself as independent, spirited, determined, self-sufficient, bold, and courageous. Ironically, there isn’t a clear distinction between this vague before and the current present. I always contended with depression tinged by anxiety, waged a war of hatred and shame against myself and my imperfections, and wrestled with a persistent thought-milieu that coalesced into the general messages, “I’m not good enough,” and “This is never going to work out.” I was the kid in high school who flipped out if everyone wasn’t wearing seatbelts and when somebody showed up at a party stoned, because we were probably all going to get arrested and someone might die.

So… yeah… it was probably always this way. The difference is, now I’m owning it. I’m facing it. Instead of eating it away, or starving it away, or pounding it into the asphalt beneath my running shoes, I’m standing up and saying, it’s not that I’m scared of germs, or the pool, or flying across an ocean and eight time zones, it’s the UNCERTAINTY of it all. I can’t control whether the medicine will work when I get sick, and I can’t prevent myself from accidental injury in the lap lanes, and I can’t predict, let alone protect myself from, all the unfortunate ills that might befall me abroad. And that TERRIFIES me. It’s easier to be afraid of experiencing an allergic reaction to herbal tea than it is to be scared of uncertainty in general. In his own way, my brother was effectually calling to my attention the reality that I was (am) afraid of everything, because the truth is, that I really can’t control anything.

It seems that the only healthy solution to this conundrum is… ACCEPTANCE. My previous solutions (binging, orthorexic restricting, avoidance behaviors) only led to more anxiety, despair, and an ultimately dysfunctional life. I am in need of some acceptance of a radical variety. RADICAL ACCEPTANCE. Because, here is an even deeper fear – the fear that I will one day die having never lived because I spent all of my days trying to rigidly control and direct every aspect of my existence. Radical acceptance means different things to different people. It might mean just acknowledging the unpredictable nature of the universe. For me, radical acceptance means putting my faith and trust in God. It’s a work in progress.

So, dear readers, what would YOU do if you weren’t afraid? Today, I am GOING to go for a bike ride! I already texted my friend Meg to ask her to hold me accountable, and she set an alarm on her phone to chime at 5 pm, the deadline I gave myself for getting my hiney out the door. I better go put on my cycling shorts!

"Dülmen, Marktstraße," © Dietmar Rabich, rabich.de, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons. License available at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/legalcode.
Dülmen, Marktstraße,” © Dietmar Rabich, rabich.de, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons. License available at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/legalcode.

“Naughty or Nice?” – A Lesson in Letting Go

Featured Image: “Northern lights (Aurora borealis) flowing over the Lyngen fjord in 2012 March,” © Ximonic (Simo Räsänen), CC-BY-SA 3.0. Original work. Wikimedia Commons.

It drives me nuts!

It’s awful!

It’s horrible!

It embodies everything that is disordered and sick in American culture!

It is the latest food-related fundraising effort at my workplace – “The Naughty or Nice Cart.” The first time that one of the office staff rolled through with this trolley of over-priced snacks, it was late on a Wednesday afternoon.  I was already in that fatigued, clock-watching, brain-addled state of non-productiveness that sometimes settles in around 3:30 pm. For that reason, I wasn’t particularly swift to recognize what was going on as she silently ambushed me, popping from seemingly nowhere into my doorway with, “DO YOU WANT TO BUY SOMETHING OFF THE NAUGHTY AND NICE CART?!”

The scales of justice have been replaced by food scales.
The scales of justice have been replaced by food scales.
La Giustizia,” by Antonio Canova, 1792. Photograph © Fondazione Cariplo, CC-BY-SA 3.0. Wikimedia Commons.

It’s bad enough that I get hit-up for money at least once a day.  Usually, I’m asked to contribute to charitable organizations I never heard of by people I never met. It’s worse that the fundraising creativity within my (very large) organization never branches beyond bake sales, pancake breakfasts, barbecue ticket sales, lumpia sales, cookie bake-offs, chili cook-offs… you get the picture. The fliers on the stairwell and bathroom doors I can stare past (although I must admit to passive-aggressively tearing one down once), the emails go straight to my junk bin, but when people come knocking on my office door it stirs up all sorts of defensiveness and anger. In the same breath that my boss tirades on about the “obesity epidemic,” he cajoles us to participate in the pasta lunch, because “we need to show that we have team spirit, and those ladies in the front office worked hard to put this together for a good cause!  So come hungry!”

The fund-raising tools of default. “A Selection of Rolling Pins,” © Terra Ambridge, CC-BY-SA 3.0, Jan 2010. Wikimedia Commons.

It usually takes all of my mindfulness skills to remind myself, in the moment, of what my therapist and nutritionist try to reinforce with me at our weekly appointments.  They don’t know any better. We are all victims of the same community-societal dysfunction and economic exploitation. I am very privileged and fortunate to have the opportunity to unlearn my food-related behaviors. Most people don’t even recognize the extent of the problem in our homes and in our society. I can see myself and my co-workers for who we are, complicated people who are suffering in our own ways.  I can forgive their comments and their actions, even when they put me down or put other people down, or when they perpetuate the underlying disordered patterns that are keeping generation after generation physically, mentally, and emotionally sick… just like I would want them to forgive me, because I am sure not perfect, either!

Jarred from my computer screen-induced stupor, I was caught without a ready response for my unwanted solicitor. I was also particularly appalled at the concept of a “Naughty or Nice” theme. My moment of delay gave her the opportunity to interject with enticements that she mistakenly thought would motivate me to dip into my pocket for loose change. “We have healthy snacks, too! You can choose to be NICE! We have fruit, and veggie sticks, and water…” So if I were to choose the chips or soda, does that make me NAUGHTY? I thought. I wanted to scream at her to get the hell out of my office with her token of pathology and judgment on wheels.

“No thanks, I don’t do food-related fundraisers,” I said instead. I saved my rant for my colleague, Steve, whose office is across a narrow, quiet hallway from mine. We leave our doors open and call out to each other through the day, popping in and out to pose questions, share interesting tidbits, or alleviate our boredom. He’s probably my biggest supporter at work, and helped cover for me while I was circling the drain prior to getting into a treatment program, then picked up my workload while I was away.

“Now our self-worth and value as human beings can be qualitatively determined by our snack purchases for an office fundraiser!!!” I growled, angrily.

“Really?” Steve raised an eyebrow. “Anyway, I thought you gave up all this complaining business and all-or-nothing talk,” he casually replied. Grrrrrrrr… I couldn’t even stew in my own indignation. He was throwing my Wise Mind back in my face! What was I supposed to do? Start burping up buttercups? I knew that he was right, but…

What can I do? As my nutritionist once told me, I can’t change the world – not alone, and not when people don’t want to be changed. When the Naughty or Nice cart rolls by now, the woman pushing it doesn’t bother knocking on my door anymore, and, still simmering, I return to the Serenity Prayer…

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.
Amen.
~ Reinhold Niebuhr

So, dear readers, what would you do?

Sunny Day,” © Marcus Quigmire, May 2008. CC-BY-SA 2.0. Wikimedia Commons.