The Seas of Self-Storms

Featured Image: “Stormy,” © Luke Gray (own work), Oct 2011. CC BY-SA 2.0. (license)

Over the course of the past day, I found myself pitched about on the brutal seas of a turbulent shame storm. When the unfortunately familiar physical sensations of burning in my face, muscle tension in my jaw, teeth clenching, and wincing began to crest, I was able to summon little desire to face whatever real or imagined iniquity lay at the eye of this hurricane. Who would want to turn into that torrent of painful emotions and cruel self-criticisms? Armed with a toolbox of distraction techniques and distress-tolerance skills, I weathered the intermittent surges of mental and emotional anguish with their characteristic accompanying bodily signs. I took a hot shower, caught up on some reading, and listened to an audiobook, all the while pushing back the recurring sense of mortification that told me I had done something terribly, abysmally, unforgivably atrocious.

A new acquaintance recently recommended a small book to me entitled God’s Tender Mercy:  Reflections on Forgiveness by Sr. Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun. This morning, I woke feeling restored after my first decent night of sleep in recent memory, but I recognized a persisting vulnerability – the raw sting that hinted at shame lurking nearby. I reached for the little book on my bedside dresser. It was only seventy-seven 3×5 inch pages long in its entirety, and I was up to chapter two, “Forgive Us Our Sins:  Forgive Yourself.” With one hand stroking my ginger cat, I began to read.

“And sometimes keeping the rules, I came to understand, can be more sinful than breaking them,” the wise sister wrote. I placed the book on my lap and contemplated my shame. It probably rose from my impression that I violated some inviolable social mores. It likely originated in the idea that I committed some act of “rule-breaking,” though I wasn’t exactly sure which of a million, little, conflicting and mutually exclusive rules I broke. My tendency toward rigid, black-and-white thinking and my old striving to be perfect provided a ready substrate for self-imposed agony. It was my choice to remain stuck in that miserable place, I realized. “If we admitted our arrogance, faced our dishonesties, named our weaknesses – at least to ourselves – we would be consumed with kindness,” I read on. What exactly was I refusing to face? I returned to the events of the previous afternoon and revisited precisely what occurred before this particular storm started churning. There, I found myself afraid to look foolish in front of others, holding myself to such an impossible standard of decorum that the specific expectations of behavior defied definition. I saw that I was terrified of doing or saying something “wrong,” and I was telling myself that a few, minor faux pas were unforgiveable. Imagining rejection and judgment, my cheeks flushed and I reflexively scrunched my face, bowing my head and squeezing my eyes tightly closed.

“The fact is that we are all made of the same thing:  clay, the dust of the earth, the frail, fragile, shapeless thing from which we come and to which we will all return someday. We are all capable of the same things. Our only hope is that when we are all sitting somewhere bereft, exposed, outcast, humiliated and rejected by the rest of society, someone, somewhere will ‘reach out a hand and lift us up.’”

~ Sr. Joan Chittister, God’s Tender Mercy

What makes me so special that I think I should never make a mistake? I asked myself. It wasn’t a new question, but I required some gentle reminding. Who am I that when I make a mistake, I am excepted from compassion and understanding? It suddenly occurred to me that accepting compassion required a strong knowledge of self. It demanded true humility. To accept compassion, whether from myself or anyone else, would mean acknowledging my need for that compassion. Why would I need compassion unless I was deeply flawed? Facing those flaws, how could I deny that I deserved the gentle grace of forgiveness? After all, if I could not embrace my inner demons, then how could I ever hope to make enough peace with them that I might embrace others? How could I move beyond the past I could not change into the future I was called to live?

“Arrogance commits us to a community of one. There is nothing to be gained there. Don’t confuse weakness with sin. Most of us struggle with something we never quite conquer. It is precisely that struggle that can become the stuff of compassion with others.”

~ Sr. Joan Chittister, God’s Tender Mercy

Shame was trying to keep me isolated in my own ego, ruminating on the blunders of yesterday, and not in a healthy way that might lead to self-improvement, but in a self-castigating way designed only to inflict punishment and pain. Shame was telling me that I was unforgiveable, and beneath it all, shame was presuming that I was better than everyone around me, because I was fixing a standard for myself that was unreasonable for any human being. I peeled back all the layers, and staring up at me was my own, stubborn pride. It drove me to care so much about how others perceived and judged me that it sucked me into an unwinnable struggle to control the uncontrollable and secluded me in my own fear and self-defensiveness. With a great sigh, I accepted that this would not be the last time I would fall victim to the myth of self-reliance. I was refusing to allow for the graciousness of others. In my narrow, condemnatory, wounded little heart, I was denying that others might be more charitable than I was in overlooking my faults and reserving judgment. Could I admit that I was too caught up in my own self-importance, hand it all over to the God whose mercy surpasses His justice, and then simply let it go?

The driving winds of the tempest began to abate. The rain fell more softly. I started writing, and I discovered an odd gratitude. If I never went so far astray, upon what would I reflect? How would I grow?

“The only thing we can offer God of value is to give our love to people as unworthy of it as we are of God’s love.”

~ St. Catherine of Siena

the-life-comes-up-after-the-storm-02
The life comes up after the storm 02,” © Marcos Oliva (own work), May 2016. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

 

Splotches

Featured Image:  “Close up on Monet,” © Peter Boothe, Jul 2009. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

Everything now is preparation for something else. Nothing is as it seems. I cannot help but wonder how it will all fit together in the end. Where am I going? Where will I be in a year? What will amount from the events of these disparate days? It is all building to something more, something else, something that I cannot grasp. To paraphrase St. Paul, I see only in shadows and mists, in fragments of the whole. I see splotches of color and flashes of light, but I have no concept of a sunrise or of the full brilliance of day. I am reminded of a great Monet waterlily painting that once captivated me in the gallery at MoMA. It was so expansive that it could only be best appreciated from a second-floor landing on the opposite side of the vast room in which it hung. It is as if I am staring at it with my nose pressed to the thick globs of paint and my feet cemented to the floor. I have no scope of the complete masterpiece, its majesty, or the transcendence of its beauty. It isn’t even within my power to step back, that I might survey the wholeness of the work. To do so would require an omnipotence and omniscience that I can’t even pretend to possess. If I clenched my fists, shook and heaved, screamed, shouted, and wailed, I would only exhaust and frustrate myself in futility. If I pummeled and clawed at the canvas, pulled at my hair, or cried, I would only hurt myself and further obfuscate the image. The only logical conclusion is to… relax. Let be what will be, though I am flooded with curiosity and intrigue.

Plunged into the simplicity of the void of the unknown and the complexity that my imagination creates there, I try to surrender. I cannot help but remain intrigued, perplexed, captivated… There is an eagerness inside me that isn’t quite the same as impatience. It is more like a sublime excitement. The status quo is blissful. I soothe myself with the expected, which allows me the delusion that I am masterfully in control of my little sliver of the universe. Excitement is about as unwelcome an emotion as anxiety. The energy and intensity that surges from novelty and anticipation upsets my equilibrium in a way that once provoked binges and furious activity – anything that would allow me to numb and avoid the discomfort of my thoughts and feelings. Now, I exercise tolerance of that empty hollow contained in my chest that resembles breathlessness. With practiced patience, I watch the energetic tides of enthusiasm, bewilderment, and fretfulness roll in and gently recede.

On Tuesday, I woke early and set about my morning routine, with a few notable exceptions. By the front door, my well-traveled suitcase was packed and my new backpack stood ready. It was not just any travel day. With my tickets for Paris purchased and the hotel booked, every trip now offered targeted opportunities to train myself for that next adventure. As a frequent flyer and someone who both values efficiency and cherishes the coziness of the familiar, my traveling was steeped in rather exact habits and routines. With every trip, I discovered some new pearl of an insight that allowed me to tweak my preparations for my next journey. Unfortunately, my methods evolved to suit domestic jaunts. An international expedition was going to require some radical departures from my comfort zone.

Mentally, I ticked off all the differences I would face as I crossed national borders and that great expanse of the Atlantic. No rental car, only a theoretical understanding of the ground transportation system at my destination, a language barrier, no local contacts or support network, no fresh fruits or vegetables allowed through French customs… even cell service and a mobile internet connection weren’t guaranteed. I would need to be ready to navigate a foreign train system and metro with all of my luggage. This trip would involve more walking than ever before!

In December, I decided that I would ditch the duffle-like, Samsonite carry-on that served me so reliably on almost every excursion since I was sixteen. My Christmas treat to myself was a new, black, backpack from my favorite German outfitter, which could also double as a large daypack during my weeklong vacation. Last week’s trip was my first flight after the holidays. The time was come to break in my pack with an inaugural adventure! It didn’t fit nearly the volume of my Samsonite, but it was made for long-distance trekking in a way that the Samsonite was not. I faced a tricky decision. What was non-essential? I was under the impression that I whittled down my packing list to the absolute necessities long ago, but when I re-examined all the gear I was consistently lugging around with me, I confronted an unsettling realization. I was capable of greater adaptability than I allowed myself to believe. A word coalesced in the back of my mind, a word that creeped into my thought once or twice in the preceding months but which was not yet one I was ready to invite into my organized consciousness. Recovered.

Items that were once essential to ensure I could maintain my coping skills in any eventuality were no longer required. My flexibility with food and my trust in my ability to “make it work” in any situation meant I could pack fewer snacks and exchanges. As I pared the contents of my bag down to my new basic necessities, a knot twisted in my gut. No reassurance from the rational part of my brain could alleviate the gnawing pain that gripped my stomach. Just as so many times in the past, I needed to prove myself to myself. My destination was Denver, and my purpose was personal as well as professional. I was headed to yet another conference, but the focus of the three-day intensive was related more to the career I hoped to find myself in someday than it was to my current work. Before I left, I ordered new business cards and printed several copies of my résumé. From the forgotten corner of a bookshelf in my study, I rooted out my black, leather portfolio with the gold embossed seal of my alma mater. The last time I used it was when I applied to graduate school 10 years ago. Then, I checked my expectations, reminding myself that my experience would be imperfect, I would invariably say or do something I would regret, and I would not be surprised if I was plagued by self-doubt and self-criticism. “This is hard,” I reminded myself gently. “It’s ok to make mistakes. It’s ok to doubt.” I said a little prayer, and I put my trust in God.

During the conference, I met some wonderful people, gained a wealth of new information, exchanged ideas and business cards, and exercised an unprecedented flexibility around food. With so many networking luncheons and dinners, I ate more prepared meals in a shorter period of time than ever before in all of my recovery. Each morning, I descended the eight floors from my room to the street below, turned the corner, and picked up a coffee and croissant at the café halfway down the block. When I wasn’t dining with the other conference attendees, I stopped at the grocery on the corner for the fresh fixings of a lone supper. “What good practice for Paris!” I merrily applauded myself.

Will anything emerge from all of the goings on of these last days? Will any of the connections that I made develop into something more? Will I ever grow beyond Vanillasville and the little, under-fulfilling job I occupy here? It is good, but I cannot help wondering what better possibilities I am not yet imagining. Where will I go? And when? Is what I think I want really what’s best for me? All I can see are flashes of color and wet, sticky globs of paint. Reflecting, I can recall countless stages of my life when I stood ankle-deep in these waters of uncertainty. I remember all of the interviews that I went on during my application to college, then graduate school, and later my first job, always imagining “What if?” and wondering, “Is this the one? Is this the place? Will I be back here again? Or will I never return?” It’s unpleasant, it’s disconcerting, and it’s confusing… yet, I feel so alive! Oh, how grateful I am for this vast, uncomfortable, blind void. The greater sorrow is to sit in my small, windowless office, content but under-stimulated all the rest of my working days. I don’t know what is coming next, or whether anything is coming at all, but there is something breathtaking in the bewilderment.

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

~ Thomas Merton, Thoughts on Solitude

lilies
lilies,” © Josh, Feb 2011. CC BY-ND 2.0. (license).  “Reflections of Clouds on the Water-Lily Pond,” by Claude Monet. Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY.

 

 

A Birthday Rehabilitated – The Second Week of the Kindness Challenge

With life seeming to break around unexpected, sharp turns fairly frequently of late, I apologize that my blogging is a bit erratic and infrequent. There are many words and ideas pinging around in my head, but I am making self-care my priority. I find myself short on free time these days, and to dedicate all of it to writing would mean sacrificing the other parts of myself that bring my mind and soul into balance – my relationships, my personal journal, exercise and yoga, drawing… Well, the result is that I’m a bit behind on my Kindness Challenge Reflections. As I prepare to publish this post, I am a bit dumbstruck by how long it took me to cobble it together, but I am also allowing myself to celebrate the other ways I am using my time – the backyard picnics that I attended with friends this weekend, Saturday’s massage, daily prayer, mindfulness practice, helping my parents around their house, wandering through the garden when the work was finished. With acceptance in mind, I’m continuing forward.

It so happened that the second anniversary of my 30th birthday fell during the second week of The Kindness Challenge, when the task was to “observe kindness around you.” Throughout my personal history, “kindness” and “my birthday” were contradictory terms. In fact, “kindness” was a word that I rarely, if ever used, and it was a concept that I certainly did not understand. You see, the sole function of my birthday was to annually substantiate, to myself and to the world, how little I mattered. It was a day for remembering that I was not only unloved but unlovable… not to mention forgotten, outcast, and worthless. It offered all the evidence that I required to remain irrefutably convicted in my mentally-ill heart that I was abnormal, defective, and irreparably damaged. I repeated the same story to myself year after year to prove why there was no hope for me. Life is not a fairy tale, and there are no such things as happy endings. I only needed to turn on CNN or look to the streets of the city where I lived for evidence of the overwhelming suffering in the world. Somehow, I was convinced that by bearing a disproportionate amount of pain, misery, loneliness, heartache, and despair, I served as a sort of reparation for the injustice and hurt experienced by others.

Underneath it all, I think that I was afraid. Of what, precisely, I’m not entirely certain. The unknown? Change? Allowing myself to be vulnerable? To be dependent on others for my emotional needs? I didn’t understand that human beings are made for each other. I couldn’t comprehend that one of the reasons I felt so lonely and unfulfilled was because no individual can satisfy all her own longings. Our souls demand connection in order to flourish. We are nourished by relationships, even the simple exchanges of a friendly smile between strangers on the subway or a kind greeting over a morning coffee transaction. I viewed my sadness as weakness. My depression was a flaw to be mercilessly vanquished through diligent work and application. Emotions were obstacles on my path to success, and other people could not be trusted. Every May, I broke my own heart. I asked for nothing, but I expected everything. In my romanticized world, I imagined that all of my friends and family would just know as my birthday approached. Though I admonished and scolded myself that life was no fairy tale, I fell for the fantasy of every chick flick, Disney movie, Hallmark Channel original, and jewelry advertisement I ever saw. I was endlessly disappointed, of course. A healthy person might recognize such disappointment as the result of an ideal founded on illusions and clever marketing, but I convinced myself that I didn’t matter. I would never matter. I was destined to be alone and to suffer forever, because it was what I was made for. I was confident that even God was ambivalent to my existence.

My 30th birthday was a murky transition between the darkness of my contorted thinking and the light. I barely dipped a toe into cognitive behavioral therapy beginning in March of that year, and I was not yet owning my “eating issues.” A year later, after six weeks of partial hospitalization for binge eating disorder, four weeks of an intensive outpatient program, and ongoing weekly therapy for my depression, anxiety, and orthorexia, I was ready for something different. Planning a party or organizing an event was still a bit beyond my coping skills. Thoughts of the food challenges, the crowd, and the expectation all provoked anxiety, resulting in my familiar chest tightness and one of my favorite fallbacks – avoidance. My biggest step forward was in acknowledging my birthday and allowing others to celebrate me. As the second anniversary of my 30th birthday approached, I felt a familiar tension rising within. Initially, I succumbed to the pressure of believing that, because I was now in recovery, I needed to honor myself by observing my birthday in a remarkable way. However, apprehension gave way to acceptance and then to a serene peacefulness as I released all of the remaining expectations to which I continued to cling. For perhaps the first time, I decided that a structured, choreographed, orchestrated bash was not requisite to prove my worth or my commitment to my self-love. Instead of assuming that I would be forgotten, I permitted myself to take for granted that the people closest to me would send me cards and that my officemates, who never, ever miss a birthday for anyone in our workplace, would at least hang up our “Happy Birthday!” sign over my desk. Vulnerability. Yet, regardless of what happened, who remembered and who didn’t, or how I celebrated, I knew that I was loved and appreciated, and on more than just a single day of 365.

birthday cards
It isn’t the gifts or cards that make me know that I’m loved… but these are such a cherished reminder.
When I released those expectations, it was as if my birthday transformed into the fairy tale I always imagined, but in an entirely unexpected way. There was no great pomp or flash, but I found magical delight in the simplest kindnesses. I flicked the light switch in my tiny office to illuminate a confetti-strewn scene bedazzled with sparkling, metallic streamers, balloons, and accented with a bouquet of bright flowers practically overflowing their vase. The absence of definitive plans allowed for an impromptu lunch at one of my favorite nearby restaurants with two of my closest colleagues, culminating in another favorite, a warm brownie sundae. I discovered that a brownie sundae is even better when it is shared with your friends on your birthday while the sun shines brilliantly outside, birds whistle springtime songs, and work stands still just long enough for a slow, deep breath that brings life all the way to your toes. I returned home at the end of my day to a stack of packages and cards piled so high that I borrowed a mail crate to carry them all from the front office of my apartment community to my little townhouse. Under a radiant, sunny sky, I rode my bike along the nearby trail, drinking in the colors, sounds, and smells all around me as I reflected on all the love poured into my heart that day.

There are always hard days when I feel myself drawing inward, when I close myself off in a self-protective cocoon. Fear, bitterness, resentment, pain… c’est la vie. If my past birthdays illustrate anything, it is that shutting myself off from the world only guarantees my suffering. Throughout this journey, I am learning the necessity of connection to the wholehearted life for which I long. It can be terrifying to allow myself to so raw and exposed, and it is pretty much guaranteed that I will both be hurt and hurt others along the way. Which leads me to this… don’t we all deserve a little kindness and compassion on this rough path we all must tread? When I open my senses to the kindness and connection all around me, I feel more alive. Today, I am grateful for all of my friends and family who showered me with smiles and thoughtfulness this May, and I am especially grateful for all of the people who loved me through all those hard, dark Mays before. Thank you.

birthday princess
Finally the birthday princess, thanks to my wonderful coworkers, who know that I’m just a little girl at heart.

#RevofKindness #bekind

The Kindness Challege, Week One – Going Gentle into a New Day

Featured Image:  “Carnation,” © Michael Dales (own work), Mar 2011. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

When making New Year’s resolutions, some people choose a single word upon which to center themselves and find motivation or grounding. I don’t think that I possess the mindfulness, consistency, focus, or diligence to remain intentional about the same word for a straight 365 days. It is hard enough for me to stay intentional, ever, even briefly. Sometimes, I become frustrated with my lack of consistency, or my absence of thought-fullness, or my failure to keep present, and I find myself growing discouraged. Defeatism and self-criticism harden my heart while the muscles in my body that are under more conscious control tighten and clench. I clamp my jaw at myself and my own obstinacy. However, there is an alternative perspective to this negative self-labeling. Recollecting my dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), and asking how else I might understand or appreciate this situation, this unwanted identity I find myself saddled with, my wise mind softly suggests another explanation, “My self-sayings tend to shift with my needs, much like my other patterns of behavior. I’m not fickle. I’m adaptable.”

Fact check – is it true? One week, I am drawn toward my coloring books and pencils in my free time, and my dining room table spills over with slivers of wood shavings and sheaves of bright paper. Another week, the pool is where I find my solace, swimming stroke after steady stroke through the cool water as I watch the rippling patterns of the sun dancing across the tile beneath me. For a period, I rise early in the morning and read in bed from a book of daily scripture or one of the spiritual classics. Lately, it is Brother Lawrence’s Practicing the Presence of God. At other times, I am more overworked and sleep deprived, and I bury my face in my soft pillow, pressing the “snooze” button at least twice. I want to be more consistent. I want to make time to meditate for twenty minutes every day, take walks in the fresh air each afternoon, journal every morning, and read every evening. I want to develop the habit of cleaning up one or two rooms of my apartment each week, and I tell myself that if I could just hit my stride, I would never again fall behind on the house work. The honest truth is, though, I am probably not ever going to be that constant, or predictable, or “balanced.” As I type out my concept of an idyllic routine, another adjective occurs to me. Boring. I remind myself of my favorite definition of balance – a moment-by-moment adjustment to life’s constant unbalancing forces. Deep breath. Sigh out. The foundation never changes, but just how those elements manifest and in what proportions they coalesce to fill time are as changeable as sand dunes in a sweeping wind. Recognition of this fact (again) may be why I find myself transfixed by a certain word as I move through each day and from one activity or task to the next. Gentle.

Middleburg carnations
Middleburg carnations,” © Sarah Ross (own work), July 2009. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

The first week of The Kindness Challenge, hosted by Niki at The Richness of a Simple Life read thus:  “Be Kind and Gentle with Yourself.” The challenge went on to prompt each participant to treat himself or herself like a close friend, replacing self-criticism, self-doubt, and self-shaming with love, tenderness, and compassion. Because, wrote Niki, “You have to love and accept yourself for who you are before you can expect for someone else to do so.” An interesting idea… But that was not what most captivated me when I contemplated self-compassion. The more critical question burning in my mind was, “How can I love another if I can’t love myself? How can I love God? How can I truly understand what love is?” These were the questions that sparked my recovery. These were the questions that changed my life. Or started changing it. After so many unsuccessful attempts at belittling and berating myself into changing, it wasn’t until I opened my eyes to God’s unsurpassed love for me, his unfathomable forgiveness, and his confounding, confusing, complete and unconditional acceptance of me right now, as I am (and as I was), in my broken, imperfect, iniquitous state, in the depth of the shame at the rock bottom of my eating disorder, that I started to recover. Who was I to withhold forgiveness from myself when God deemed me fit for forgiveness? Who was I to withhold love from myself when God found me worthy, despite all of my unworthiness, of receiving His perfect love?

For years, I worked, studied, read, analyzed, criticized, and slaved, to “fix myself” (i.e., be perfect), and the only visible result was that I sank deeper and deeper into anxiety, depression, neuroticism, social isolation, and a diseased mind and body. All those efforts weren’t for nothing, however. I can’t put my finger on the missing piece that finally unified the disparate fragments and focused a floodlight of insight on my struggle, but it smacked me in the face during a group session in the midst of my partial hospitalization stint. It was not as though I never underwent any changes before that moment, and it didn’t become any easier afterwards, but from that day forward, everything was different. The shift was painful and excruciatingly slow. It was an uphill battle against decades of mental illness, destructive and disordered thinking, and deeply patterned behavioral reactions. Only now I was fighting with LOVE.

Waiting for the Word
The Good Shepherd 130,” © Waiting for the Word (own work), May 2011. CC BY 2.0. (license)

With the epic struggle become more like day-to-day maintenance or a steady, lifelong construction project, the busyness of life can dull my attentiveness to that love.  I tend to forget what it was like when gentleness, love, and compassion were novel and tender and needed my constant effort to willfully turn my mind around each time I found myself reacting automatically with cynicism, criticism, doubt, anger, righteousness, disdain, judgment, shame, blame, or resentment… which was pretty much every waking minute of every day. New automatic patterns take over. Some of the old ways still remain, although they are largely transmuted. It is not necessarily that I am in danger of sliding back into that same dark hole where I was once imprisoned, but slowly, subtly, the glow in my heart dims

Enter The Kindness Challenge. Such was my state when I began the challenge, and I found myself revisiting the same questions that I confronted during those first few days of learning how to eat, how to trust others, how to trust myself, how to give myself permission to be imperfect/real/human/alive… What makes me worthy of love and belonging? Nothing. Only that I am a beautiful creature of my heavenly Father, created in the image and likeness of God, and filled with the Holy Spirit. I am just as broken and dysfunctional as every other human being, and I am just as endowed with the fullness of dignity and just as infinitely loved. How then, do I treat myself? Gently. In case I need another reminder, it is the Year of Mercy, after all.

“Nothing is so strong as gentleness, nothing so gentle as real strength.”

~ St. Francis de Sales

So… I went to bed early, and I took time out of my afternoons to meditate, if only for a few minutes. I exercised for the joy and pleasure of moving my body in a healthy, purposeful way, noticing the smells of the plants, the trills and chirps of the birds and crickets, the rustling of the leaves, and the chill of the breeze as I bicycled along the path near my house. I pushed my to-do list out of the way, and I pulled out my colored pencils. I held myself accountable, and I accepted my inevitable mistakes. I brushed myself off and I began again. I wrote down my gratitudes every day. Or nearly every day. I let go of being perfect or complete. Or I made an effort to let go. I took my time, and spent an extra two days to finishing this post. Deep breath. Sigh out. It’s a work in progress…

This new week brings a new chapter in The Kindness Challenge. As I endeavor to open my heart to appreciating the kindness all around me, I am making a note of the kindness that I find here, among my rich blogging community. And I am grateful. For another perspective on what it is like to cultivate self-love and self-compassion while recovering from an eating disorder, I encourage you to visit one of my favorite blogs, Beauty Beyond Bones. The author of this amazing blog writes beautifully and expressively about the emotional journey of recovery and of the process of reconnecting with God, self, and others. I always find unfailing kindness there. ♥

“Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice! Your kindness should be known to all. The Lord is near. Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”

~ Philippians 4:3-7

Elsea Meadow Bourne
Elsea Meadow, Bourne,” © Lee Morley (own work), July 2013. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

#RevofKindness #bekind

 

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.

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.

To Love and Forgive

In my last post, I wrote about tripping up and falling face-first into a concoction of sticky, sweet ice cream, caramel, whipped cream, and chocolate.  I reflected on this incident as a learning experience.  It served as a reminder of the reasons I might want to place greater confidence in my Wise Mind, which I am conditioning through education and the training I am undergoing in psychotherapy, rather than buying into beliefs that arise from alarming comparisons to others.  Those comparisons usually come from or lead to thoughts of, “I AM NOT GOOD ENOUGH!”  There was another notable feature of my experience on the Fourth of July that is worth mentioning.  I didn’t waste time shaming myself, hating myself, punishing myself, or belittling myself for a perceived failure, sin, lapse, or unforgivable mistake.  The fact that I was able to reflect on the events that transpired (i.e., my thoughts, emotions, physical reactions, and the behavioral choices that I made in response), assess what was helpful and what areas I might improve upon in the future, write it all down in my journal, and then move past it to enjoy the remainder of my vacation, was pretty monumental.  After I put it on paper, I didn’t dredge it up again until a week later, when I was sitting across the desk from my nutritionist, and we were able to laugh as I described what it felt like to nearly black out because I was so panicked over something as meaningless and incidental as a bowl of churned and frozen cream and sugar.

My ability to forgive myself and think both reasonably and compassionately about what I consider a “slip” or a “fault” is probably a better indicator of my improving mental health and the state of my recovery than the fact that I am eating bread again and haven’t binged in roughly eight months.  (*Gasp* I had to count on my fingers.  I can’t believe it!)  Sometimes, it still takes a while to work through my mistakes, and I spend a period dwelling in abject horror at my awfulness, but for the most part, I move through these shame-spells much more fluidly than I ever did before in my first 30 years.

Thunderstorm Over Corfu
“Thunderstorm Over Corfu,” © SimonQ, CC-BY-2.0, Aug 2009. Wikimedia Commons.

My recovery journey is long, twisted, and ongoing, but if there is one insight that made a fundamental difference in allowing me to gain freedom from the death-grip my eating disorder held on my mind and soul it was this:  GOD LOVES ME NOW, AS I AM, IN THIS BROKEN STATE OF IMPERFECTION.  HE SEES ME MORE CLEARLY THAN I CAN EVEN SEE MYSELF, AND HE LOVES ME MORE THAN I CAN IMAGINE.  If God can forgive me that much and love me that powerfully, though I am so fallen, so stained, so wretched, if God can ACCEPT me as I am while still HOPING that I will someday be better, I can accept myself as well.  I realized, in essence, that acceptance is not the same as approval.  I didn’t need to condone my binging, but in order to move beyond binging, I needed to accept myself for who and what I was, forgive myself for all my past wrongdoings, and start approaching my failings as opportunities for self-exploration, personal discovery, and growth.

Flowers Along the Sidewalk
“Flowers in a Planter Box,” Tomwsulcer, CC0 1.0, May 2014. Wikimedia Commons.

This realization was monumental, and it literally struck me like a bolt of lightening so suddenly in the middle of a group therapy session one day, last winter, during my stint in partial, that I burst into tears and the mental health counselor overseeing the discussion stopped to make sure I was all right.

It’s difficult to describe just how vehemently I despised myself.  My view of myself was as an abhorrence, a mistake of creation, something not deserving to live.  I blamed myself for my inadequacy, believing that if I was more diligent, harder working, with a stronger will, I would be able to overcome all my wretchedness, stop binging, lose weight, get in shape, and achieve the “perfect” body.  (Even though I was on the borderline of being underweight and was very likely malnourished).  I stepped on the scale several times a day and would tear into my closet, distraught, to try on every pair of pants and every belt I owned, seeking either reassurance or fuel with which to further berate/”motivate” myself.  This pattern of thinking didn’t suddenly dissolve overnight, replaced by self-compassion and reasonableness.  It was a gradual change, but it was enabled by a group of people suffering in many of the same ways.  It was much easier to practice compassion for others as I listened to the stories they shared during the many long hours we passed together under the mindful guidance of experienced professionals.  They, in turn, treated me with empathy and love.  Slowly, I started to internalize what I heard repeated over and over.  I began allowing myself to entertain the possibility that my friends actually do appreciate and love me just as much as I cherish them, and that I am not the tremendous burden I imagined.  I read Brené Brown’s book The Gifts of Imperfection, and something inside of me shifted (1).  I realized that this process of becoming is really the process of living, and my imperfections are what make me who I am.  Would anybody really go to Pisa if it’s tower wasn’t leaning over?  I’m still a work in progress, and I always will be, but I love who I am and I love even more who I am becoming.

White Blooming Cherry Tree
“Blooming Cherry Tree,” Dinkum, CC0 1.0, April 2010. Wikimedia Commons.

“There’s nothing interesting about looking perfect…” ~ Emma Watson

“The most dangerous stories we make up are the narratives that diminish our inherent worthiness.  We must reclaim the truth about our lovability, divinity, and creativity.” ~ Brené Brown

“There is indeed something terribly the matter with us, and there is, at the same time, something foundationally good, something ‘divine’ at the heart of us…we must awaken to what is god-like in us, what is rich and fecund and unbroken, what is in continuity with the saving designs of God.” ~ Fr. Robert Barron(2)

(1) Brown, B.  The Gifts of Imperfection.  Center City, Minn.:  Hazeldon; 2010.

(2) Barron, R.  And Now I See…A Theology of Transformation.  New York:  The Crossroad Publishing Company; 1998: pp. 27-28.

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